Sunday, June 29, 2008

Books for Readers #110

Books for Readers #110

June 29, 2008

I’ve been reading less since my son was born twenty three years ago. In my hurry to waste no time and get just the books I want, I confess I have been using the Internet more and more to buy books. I also go back to books I already own like my Oxford complete Jane Austen or my set of Trollope’s Barchester novels, or Dickens or Eliot. But books accumulate alarmingly, and not always books I love. So I’m trying out a brand new service, a paid lending library. Or, to make it sound more 21st century, it’s like Netflix for Books. There are a couple of these services available, but I chose Paperspine because– okay, I’ll be honest– they had some of books available to borrow. The way it works is you pay $14.95 a month and keep a list of books you want to borrow-- a queue. You borrow as often as you want, one or two books at a time. Return postage is included in the fee. So far, the only thing I don’t like is not being able to dog ear corners of pages. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading from Paperspine.
Nahid Rachlin’s memoir of childhood and young womanhood, PERSIAN GIRLS, was wonderful and sad, probably more satisfying in the first two thirds, but gripping all the way through. It’s about Iran, of course, but also about the lives of all of us who left home and went far away. The heart of the memoir is the relationships among women, first the richness of the life of the hijab’d women in Rachlin’s very religious aunt’s house and then the passion between two sisters. It is also about the pain of daily life in an overtly patriarchal society. It’s hard to say sometimes, however, if the pain comes from family dynamics or from the stresses of living under totalitarian regimes.
Another very strong book I read is the extremely popular Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. This is one book I envy him having written. I had been led to believe it was totally bleak, but maybe the reviewers haven’t read much post apocalyptic literature, of which it is in some ways typical of the genre. It doesn’t bother much with explanations of why things are as they are, and instead of a heroic loner Mad Max character, it’s about a man and a boy. It is also an old man’s book, by which I mean to compliment it: its hopefulness is not the biological optimism of a young animal but a measured, experienced hopefulness of long living and accumulated wisdom. It’s a book with beautiful spare writing, with nuclear winter or at least nuclear Autumn, with infants roasted on spits, with a theory that having beautiful dreams means you are giving up, that there is no god, that god is dead, that god is possibly present in human goodness. There are plenty of horrors, and lovely passages of dialogue between father and son: Are you okay? I’m okay. Are you talking? I’m talking. Are you sure. Yes. Do you want to tell me your dream? I’m scared. It’s okay. Are we going to die? Of course, but not necessarily now. The possibly hopeful ending is believable because every ending is in fact to die or to live a little longer.
I also borrowed a much-recommended memoir– I mean, everyone seems to love THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Walls, and it is a real life page turner: it’s about a family in which the kids essentially raise themselves. I liked less Augusten Burroughs’ RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, another highly popular memoir of spectacularly bad parenting– but Burroughs seems a little more interested in cleverness than in the people– but you can’t stop reading this one either.
Thulani Davis’s MY CONFEDERATE KINFOLK: A TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY FREEDWOMAN DISCOVERS HER ROOTS is also nonfiction, but a very different reading experience. Davis makes something that is entertaining in the highest sense by taking her own genealogical studies and deeply serious topics (slavery, race in America) and turning them into a wonderful and painful story. It is set during the Civil War in the region of the South near the Mississippi River, and in the period of Reconstruction and the so-called Redemption that followed when the ugliness of Jim Crow and lynching and all the rest were experimented with and then institutionalized. You always knew, of course, that a lot of people were murdered in white supremacist terrorism, but you didn’t necessarily know how systematically the attacks were made on educated black men and women who had leadership potential– the ones who were taking on offices and legislative roles during that brief ten years when black people had the vote. The outstanding figure in this book is Davis’ great-grandmother Chloe Tarrant Curry, whose relationship with Will Campbell, a white planter, is fascinating, especially concerning “Chloe’s white child” (Davis’ grandmother) Georgia Campbell. When Will Campbell dies, he leaves everything he has to Chloe Curry who manages the farm, educates her children, and leaves money and property to them. She figures out how to make the system work so that she founds her own matriarchal dynasty of educated black people (not just the white man’s daughter, either, but her other children as well). There are other resourceful women in the book as well, like Will Campbell’s white mother, who apparently spent the Civil War in a wagon, following the troops and helping her soldier sons.
Finally– NOT from Paperspine– THE CROSSROADS by Chris Grabenstein is a fun, fast-moving young adult ghost story. The story has a lot of ghosts, all entertainingly human, and it has a touching ending when the main character’s ghost friend fades back into being dead.

-- Meredith Sue Willis


I was a participant in the student sit-ins at Columbia University in 1968, but never really understood what the experience of the Black students there was like until this spring, especially thanks to an excellent and moving DVD called !VALA! by Sherry Suttles. You can get a copy from her at
Sherry A. Suttles
250 Layne Blvd. #201
Hallandale Beach, FL 33009
Susan Kahn recommends Carl Oglesby’s RAVENS IN THE STORM . She says, “Oglesby takes the reader through a very personal ride through the late sixties. He became President of SDS in 1965, visited campuses across the country, then Hanoi and finally Cuba. His time in SDS came to an end with the split over Weatherman politics. It is a very well written book which gives the reader a real sense of spirit of protest and the political tensions within the movement.”
Katherine Brewster recommends Mary Gordon’s novel PEARL.
Also, see the list in Newsletter # 109


“SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY by Camilla Gibbs and ALL SOULS' RISING by Madison Smartt Bell... two very visual/anthropological novels I've read more than once. I found myself immersed in the cultures described and learned a lot in the process. Since a recent trip to Louisiana, I've developed an interest in both Cajun culture and that region. As a result, Gerald Swick recommended I read the ‘cop novel’ CADILLAC JUKEBOX by Louisiana's James Lee Burke. It certainly reveals the culture and world of the bayou. To my way of thinking, Cajun folks are the most like mountaineers. LEARNING TO FLY, the final memoir of Mary Lee Settle, is well worth reading. She pulls few punches in describing her personal struggles as well as her evolution as a writer.”


“...I mentioned the book I'd just started, and now I've finished it and must urge you to please abandon everything else in your life and read it immediately. STRANGE AS THIS WEATHER HAS BEEN by Ann Pancake. It's about a West Virginia family and how it's affected by the coal industry's latest atrocity, mountaintop removal. Politically it's very interesting but even aside from that, the writing is astounding. Breathtakingly original language. Just amazing writing. Also, the core of it is the main characters' relationship to the land, something no book I've ever before read has conveyed so powerfully.”


Marion Cuba offers us the following detailed detailed discussion of her experience. Take a look at her website. The book is about people who escaped Hitler and went to Shanghai. See Shanghai Legacy.
After doing research on self-publishing companies—almost going with one that clearly wasn’t going to give my book the time required—I read a book rating the various POD (print-on-demand) publishers. was the one most highly recommended on value, quality, an advantageous contract, and its own website (considered an asset). I went with and had—and continue to have—an excellent experience.
One thing that is different from other pod publishers is that rejects about 90% of the writers who apply. They wish to take authors who fill certain requirements. Why? Because they wish to have writers who will sell a good amount of books. Other pod’s take anyone, thus making their money with no investment in how many books an author will sell.
To be accepted at Booklocker, a writer DOES have to pledge to do a lot of work. And, it IS a lot of work.
First of all, your manuscript has to pass muster. You must also indicate your plans to market the book; Booklocker doesn’t try to “upsell” you on their own marketing services as other pod’s do.
You never communicate with them by phone! Everything is done via e-mail—including payment, corrections, orders, questions. Even, using their template, the manuscript. I for one had to learn all of this—broke my head over it, actually—but I got the product I wanted.
They would have provided an individual cover at a price, or a template cover (oft-used) for a bit less. I happened to have located an art director whose work I admired and got him to do the cover. I therefore paid less to Booklocker.
My book was completely professional looking. And, unlike the other pod publishers, I did not have to use Booklocker’s name, thus identifying me at once as a self-publisher. I was free to use a name I chose.
I was able to obtain many reviews, book readings, blurbs, and pr for my novel, SHANGHAI LEGACY. I do believe this was due to my hard work of marketing, outreach, and my subsequent website, But I am sure the production quality of the book and of Booklocker’s constant advice, support, and suggestions was a huge part of my success.


THE ADIRONDACK REVIEW Summer Issue is now online at The Summer Issue features great fiction, poetry, and book reviews. Furthermore, it showcases the winner and finalists of the 2007 Photography Prize. THE ADIRONDACK REVIEWis also pleased to announce that the 46er Prize for Poetry is now open to submissions. For more information, please see the website.


More Cat Pleska! Listen here: Cat Pleska. Cat also writes to say she is in the process of creating a CD called THE LAST STORYTELLER of 8 of her radio essays for sale this summer. She reports that a workshop in Erie, PA is using mp3 files of them for inspiration and as examples of writing for radio.


Bill Zavatsky has won a Guggenheim fellowship this year to write his poetry.
Kathy Seal’s new book is out: PRESSURED PARENTS, STRESSED OUT KIDS. See
Cervena Barva Press is pleased to announce the publication of A CURE FOR SUICIDE by Larissa Shmailo. Shmailo writes (as the founder of Fulcrum Magazine Philip Nikolayev points out in his introduction) as if she is …” constitutionally predestined to sing out her lines…her eyes filled with life and love, pain and death, freedom and coercion, the real of the mind and the imagined of the heart.” Order online at
Anne Whitehouse has a new poem “The Refrain” in AMARILLO BAY, vol. 10, no. 2, May 2008. See
Anne’s web page is
Ed Lynskey’s third P.I. Frank Johnson mystery, PELHAM FELL HERE, is due out immediately from Mundania Press ( Set in West Virginia/Virginia, it has been called "a delight" by James Crumley, and has received positive reviews in the LANSING STATE JOURNAL and MIDWEST.

Listen to an interview with Suzanne McConnell about being a student of Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Workshops that includes a snippet of Vonnegut himself reading from his work: Vonnegut
Chris Grabenstein’s YA book described above has a great web site:


Launch party for Chris Grabenstein’s adult mystery HELL HOLE (Ceepak Mystery #4) at Captain Dave's Firehouse: Tuesday, July 22, 7 PM, The quarters of FDNY Engine 23, 215 West 58th Street. All proceeds will go to charity! See his website at


The Appalachian Writers Anthology is encouraging submissions of original works of poetry and fiction (up to 2500 words). The submission deadline is September 1, 2008. For information about the anthology and submission guidelines, please see

RATTLE seeks submissions by August 1. Next winter's issue, #30, will feature the work of cowboy/western poets. If you happen to be a rancher/cowboy/western poet, send your unpublished poems and essays by August 1st. They are always open to regular submissions—about 75% of the poems in every issue are open to any style, genre, or poet. Visit for guidelines.
CITY LORE has launched City of Memory, a grand repository for New York City's stories told in audio, video, images and text. They are seeking stories or poems that are associated with a particular NYC place, and photographs. Navigate to, click ADD STORY to have your story included on the map. Every story needs an address – although the address can also be an intersection. If you have video or audio, you would like to include, let us know and we will upload it for you. Let us know, too, if you encounter any problems entering your story.


Here’s something different: Take a look at


Saturn Series Poetry Reading @ Nightingale Lounge
213 2nd Avenue, 7:30 pm, $3, $6 minimum at the bar
7/7 - Roslyn Rabin
7/14- Elise Buchman
7/21 - Theda Detlor
7/28 - Larissa Shmailo


One of our finest and oldest small presses has a new catalog out–books by Tony Towle, Marie Carter, and Sharon Mesmer and Michael Cirelli and more– see their webpage at and, for readings and other upcoming events, see their blog at for information about readings and other upcoming events.


One of the oldest and best sources of books on getting writing and directories of small presses and little magazines is Dustbooks, at


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 .

Now Amazon is causing a new stink in the publishing world! They are demanding that certain publishing options be replaced by their exclusive Print on Demand Company Book Surge. Take a look here to read more: writers weekly


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. A lot of people I know prefer to use the unionized bricks-and-mortar bookstore Powells that also sells online at 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.


Please send responses and suggestions directly to Meredith Sue Willis at Unless you instruct otherwise, your responses may be edited for length 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

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Back from West Virginia..Again

I’m just back from a few days in West Virginia– had an excellent one day workshop with the Morgantown branch of the West Virginia Writers, George Lies and Mary Lucille DeBerry and others organized a just-right sized workshop with Robert Tinnell the screen writer and Robert W. Walker the novelist (both of whom live in WV now) and me and more. There were workshops, some critiquing, a panel, socializing– around 40 participants with that wonderful West Virginia mix of high school, college, retired and everything in between. I got to visit a little with Norman Julian and met lots of new people, all interesting– it took place at the Monongalia Arts Center.

The rest of the time I spent with Mom, who is rushing around getting ready to leave for a few weeks– she is going to Ohio with my cousin Harley, then she’ll fly to us to see Joel when he is in, then either I’ll take her home or she’ll go back to Harley’s. Not clear yet.

I’ll probably end up taking her, as, in spite of the grueling drive, I so enjoy just being in West Virginia with the blue haze on the intense green of the nearby hills with their choppy tree-topped summits– I can never describe those northern West Virginia hills: they are shorter than farther south, not so steep, still have some open fields. They always feel very close by, and the silhouette when the light is behind them is of a badly cut little boy’s hair: irregular and endearing.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Inconvenient Global Warming

June 12

I finally read a Christmas gift from Joel, I think-- Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. It was very short, like an article in the New York Review of Books but with nicer pictures) I had avoided and dreaded this, but it is actually such a pretty book, and I think a lot of what I read is going to make more sense to me now– the temperature of water, the relative fragility of the arctic ice, how the drowning of coastal cities is maybe less crucial than weather patterns (and this month we've had a lot of severe weather). Why didn’t Gore get elected president? There would be no war in Iraq, we would have signed on to the Kyoto treaty, there would be two more reasonable people on the Supremes. Some of his sidebars were a bit much about his family, but he two interesting analogies: his sister dying of lung cancer apparently in her late forties or early fifties and the misinformation from the tobacco companies, and the relative success of the ozone layer crisis: governments CAN work together etc. etc.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hot and Busy

We are in the middle of a major heat wave– the Accuweather report on the Internet has an alarming red thermometer with cartoon heat wiggles, and here in Essex County, NJ we had a power outage yesterday for six hours, 75,000 customers, and meanwhile ’m reading An Inconvenient Truth which I’m glad I’m doing as I had been dreading it, and it’s actually pretty simplified and straight forward and the pictures are too pretty to be really depressing.

I hope I don’t get caught in a blackout in NYC today, final writers’ group at Edith’s.

I had hoped for really intense work this week, too, my first week with days having NO teaching or meetings (Not many, but a couple). I’ve been trying to catch up, actually vacuuming the bedroom around the just-installed air-conditioner when the power faded, then went out. I took it as a message from the Powers That Be that I wasn’t meant to run a vacuum...

Last week I had a visit to a school in Jersey City, my regular Advanced Novel Workshop, Social Action Committee, Schools Committee, the North Wildwood Beach Writers Conference, AND my Jump Start Your Novel One-shot on Saturday. Plus Sunday was Ethical and the Sciaino family graduation party for Ryan and Anne. I hasten to add that there was nothing here I don't get pleasure and satisfaction from doing, but it was a lot, and I'll be going to West Virginia for a couple of days next week.