Wednesday, October 29, 2008

San Francisco Notes

Christine Willis and MSW on Octrober 28, 2008

October 29, 2008

It’s Wednesday, and I’m exhausted after a night at my sister Chrissie’s in San Luis Obispo. Joel drove me down as Andy still had the conference. I worked yesterday morning Tuesday, and then took the BART out to Berkeley where I was picked up by Joel and we headed down 880 to 101 through Oakland then South Bay then towns like Gilroy and Bradley in the middle of farming nowhere (garlic! kale! cabbages! romain lettuce!) and then to San Luis Obispo. I really enjoyed riding with him stopping for Bun and Run I mean In and Out, talking talking about religion about our family about Sarah’s family. Chrissie was home to meet us, then Goro arrived with an enormous platter of sushi which we consumed with gusto, and then custard pie and home made brownies and figs from down the street and Japanese persimmons from Chrissie’s tree.Finally a long walk with Chrissie, stunning stars and milky way overhead, cats she petted, friendly Tillie and Marvin, feral Sophie that sleeps outside her sliding doors, and a conversatin about religion and other big topics. Bed, got up early, drove 3 and a half hours back, Joel and me talking all the time about family, religion, and economics. We stopped at Garlic World or something lke that in Gilroy.
Back, Andy done with conference, we had lunch and Tartine, then walked past mission Dolores, and he went off to ride the Cable Cars and I to the Asian Museum where I overdosed on narrow waisted Hindu gods and calm golden buddhas. Much bigger museum than I expected.
Then dinner at Shalimar in the Tenderloin and a drink at Bourbon and Branch. Hard work, having fun!

October 28

Notes on the Contemporary Jewish Museum yesterday: Beautiful, clean, relaxing space. I would have paid at least half the fee just to walk around the space. I adored the "In the Beginning" exhibit, especially the aphorism-God slot machine game. It made me laugh out loud. Actually, all the participatory works engaged me a lot-- I made a contract to create a word/art work, stuck my face in the big metal Gramophone thing. Andy Warhol's ten top Jews of the 20th century was fun, too. Had a great time, altogether.

October 27

Report on yesterday: journal and reading in the a.m., then Joel and Sarah picked me up and we went over to the Mission District to to Precita Eyes for the mural tour. Precita Eyes, which appears to be run by artists of the old hippy and hipster variety, the office actually is a working space with post cards but also materials for sale and workrooms. Everything nice and funky. The tour guide was a crusty 70 year old who looked like people I know, three day beard, big headed Jewish from San Francisco and Richmond and East Bay. Loved the little Balmy Alley with murals all along, from last year to done in the seventies. The tour ran an hour and a half, and part of what impressed me was the rehabs of old work, the occasionally little tags by graffiti artists, the sheer exuberance.

Andy met us for Shanghai dumplings, then he went back to a meeting and Joel and Sarah and I went on to Muir woods which was much for fun than I expected because of how we ended up on a semi strenuous ( “moderate”) hike on reddish yellow redwood duff, up a hill quite steep, in deepening dusk/fog. Then we met Andy back downtown and grabbed fast food at a food court and went to see W. ! So that was a super busy day, and today was quieter, revising an article for Appalachian Heritage then the Jewish Contemporary Museum with a great exhibit of artists reacting to the first chapter of Genesis. Then I hung out here and there, at the pier watching birds and an otter, coffee and reading, Borders, finally meeting Andy and Sarah and having dinner in Oakland at Zachary's pizza with Fenton's homemade ice cream and then home. I'm beginning to get into this indulgence and relaxing.

October 26

Joel, MSW, Andy, & Sarah on Saturday night at a freeloaders' delight for rheumatologists & friends

Andy took off very early for meetings and I went down and did the stationary bike for ten minutes, have been reading The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. Today, Joel and Sarah are taking me to the Precita Eyes tour and then maybe dumplings, maybe Muir woods. Not sure. I’m really feeling on vacation, eating mucho too much! Yesterday, as today, it was Starbucks coffee and muffin to start, but then we had the lunch at Chez Panisse, and my first trip to East Bay, West Oakland looking pretty funky, North Oakland and Berkeley as pretty and cute as can be. Young professionals and young families country, the inexorable sun and medium heat, the tropical traces: palm trees, brilliant purple vines and red, and some huge hanging yellow blossoms. Houses mostly single, although J & S are in a six unit apartment, and the ambiance is of small craftsman style cottage houses, not much property per house, but trees, flowers, and this style I have trouble naming, which is part craftsman, part a wooden interpretation of Japanese? Berkeley campus quite stunning, on a slope, a gorgeous giant eucalyptus tree grove that blew me away. Sproul square, the free speech movement A “free speech” café full of kids and laptops, and images of the free speech movement.

Before that, though, Chez Panisse: again the lovely cozy wood, rafter, brick style. Open kitchens to watch, a yellow tomato soup with creme fraiche that was splendid, and pesto ravioli with tomato coulis for me, some name brand ranch turkey for Joel, salmon with corn and cilantro for Andy, and etc. etc. Glass of wine, plus desserts. Too much, and then in the evening, a big drug extravaganza at the Museum of Modern Art, the whole lobby with tables and foods stations and wine tastings! Sushi, shrimp! I really loaded up on shrimp in hopes of not entirely gorging. A walk through the museum’s modern holdings, a little O’Keeffe, a couple of Riveras and a Kahlo, lots of Klee (arthritis sufferer) and big nice red and black Rothko. And then back down to sit near the dessert extravaganza (creme brulee! Tiramisu! Cookies, berries with whipped cream oh my). Long conversation about drug companies and their relationship to doctors, to ethics, to capitalism.

I think I want to ask Sarah sometime to day what she thinks of the endless arguments.

And the big news: Tak and Chiaki had twin baby girls!

October 25

Saturday morning in the Hotel Whitcomb in San Francisco, regrouping! The room is small, but the hotel is terrific with high ceilings and a sort of marble and steak and whisky mahogany elegance in the public areas. It was once, briefly, the town hall of San Francisco.

I’ve got my Starbucks coffee from the shop downstairs at hand, and I’ve had an apple-bran muffin and read a little in the New York times. I’m headachy and all, but slept reasonable considering that we had dinner at eleven p.m. Eastern Daylight. We ate at a neat place called B-Star that is Burmese Fusion– Sarah had soft shelled crabs and deviled tea eggs, and Joel had a neat thing with meatballs and rice porridge, Andy had a fancy salad but with the peppered french fries and curry mayonnaise! And I had an absolutely delicious wild rice dish with peanuts, cilantro, red cabbage, and shiitake mushrooms– I don’t know that this sounds as good as it was. Ginger lemonade, etc. And a big helping of discussion about religion and belief in God! Andy takes the position that we probably shouldn’t have discussions like this, and Sarah’s family, as I understand it, prefers to avoid conflict, but Sarah likes to discuss, and Joel and I apparently adore this.

We had just been to services at Beth Shalom with plenty of singing and good feelings. At dinner, we had a big religious discussion: Andy takes the basic line that If there is an all-powerful ostensibly loving God, what the hell does he think he’s doing with the Holocaust for starters? Sarah essentially is deeply culturally Jewish, but sounds like a Deist in belief: God may have been involved in a daily way at one time, started it all rolling, but no longer. Joel is looking to believe, and was never satisfied with Ethical Culture as a religion. And I’m looking for the psychological connection (and I do believe this) that we all humans have experiences, awareness of something greater, epiphanies, mystical moments, connections to the oneness, whatever, and we put it in various containers built of culture.

So except for being really tired, that was fun.

It was an okay flight, rather a lot of turbulence that I breathed my way through, eyes closed in and out. Xanax thank you. I didn’t sleep as much as I’d hoped, but (is the drug an amnesiac?) I don’t remember suffering too much. Stuffed 737 plane, whimpering and yowling babies, but not as bad somehow as it could have been. And I didn’t get out of the seat the whole time. So something was relaxed. Dry muffin in the airport, biscuit and egg and fruit on the plane plus a tiny yogurt later, then a big La Taq burrito that left me feeling bloated the rest of the day and finally that meal at night. So that looks like four or five meals yesterday, and we're scheduled for lunch at Chez Panisse!.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

October notes

Andy and I went up to the lake for an overnight, and driving back, saw this in Western Berkshire County! A Democratic farmer!

October 18

Lovely reading at the Ardsley (New York) United Methodist Church (“My Boy Elroy.”) It was a real church supper with pot luck deliciousness, an apple theme (“Apples for Appalachia”), and today they’re having a sale of crafts from Eastern Kentucky with sisters from the Mt. Tabor Monastery.

The event felt at once like an Ethical Culture supper and also for me like the First Baptist Church of Shinnston, West Virginia when I was growing up. Sister Kathleen talked about Mountaintop Removal and knows Silas House. I had been vaguely expecting an affluent upscale bunch, and I’m sure some of the Methodists there are plenty affluent, but at least for this meeting in this church basement, there was a terrific homey-ness, a diversity of race and ethnic group, and a wonderfully genuine interest in sharing Appalachia, learning about Appalachia, helping the Appalachians who need help.

And it was fun to have Andy with me, too. I usually do these writer events alone, but he was a good sport in all ways, had fun appreciated the food.

And those Methodists know how to eat! Incredibly succulent pork roast and roast potatoes, several kinds of Waldorf salad, lasagne, beans carrots– apple crisp with ice cream for dessert.

October 13

Bill Higginson, poet and haiku guru died on October 11, 2008. See obituary and one of his websites. There are several obituaries on various blogs if you Google his name. I didn't know him well, but he was an important member of the New Jersey literary community for many years, and a teacher with the New Jersey Writers project. Lovely man, contributed to my newsletter a few months ago, just because I asked.

October 12, 2008

Well, I got off my newsletter and finished reading Obama’s Dreams from My Father , which gave me a very strange sensation–is it possible that we might have a president who can write a graceful sentence, and more to the point, has an inner life? An interest in his own personal past, a desire to explore other people, other cultures? Was once a community organizer? Has a father who was African and a mother who was from Kansas?

It seems too heady a possibility, just the phrase, "a president with an inner life"– now, I believe all human beings have inner lives, but recent presidents, even someone intelligent like Bill Clinton, have run from that part of themselves full speed. At least for the time it took him to write his first book, Barack Obama did the opposite. The book ends, by the way, with his wedding, which he uses as a symbol of coming together--many nationalities, many religions, his Kenyan sister and brother as well as his white mother and half-Indonesian sister, Michelle's South Side Chicago family. Touching and inspiring, and a neat closing to his book.

And now-- Obama's lead is narrowing, and I had a brief conversation with my recently deceased cousin’s widow in which she listened in dead silence as I said the usual things about William Ayers having done some despicable things, but having also paid his debt to society (although he never did jail time), working as a college teacher, education reformer, etc., and mainly that Obama was eight years old at the time of the Weatherman implosion. She watches television and goes to church. Education by Fox News.

But my mother voted by absentee ballot! And she's an 89 year old Obamagirl, bless her heart.

And yet, part of me says, we don't deserve thoughtful presidents. Presidents don’t agonize over the meaning of life.

My most realistic assessment is that the Democrats CAN win, but that it is going to be much closer than it has been in the last few days, that the attack via William Ayers is doing damage, racism is still alive out there. Karl Rove's slimy nastiness thrives in these last weeks before the election.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Books for Readers #113

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers #113

October 12 , 2008


The following notes, except if otherwise credited, are from Jeffrey Sokolow, who stresses that he is a reader, not a scholar, but that he has developed an interest in the spy craft of the Cold War, both histories and memoirs. This month, then, we’ll learn about some books we might explore in this area.

Jeffrey writes: “Since an old friend told me to read Gilles Perrault's THE RED ORCHESTRA (and later I discovered Leopold Trepper's memoir, THE GREAT GAME), I have had an interest in reading espionage literature. Why stories of clandestine work would appeal to me I cannot imagine. One rich source of information is participant memoirs. Two books by spouses of murdered agents are very worthwhile: OUR OWN PEOPLE: A MEMOIR OF ‘IGNACE REISS’ AND HIS FRIENDS by Elisabeth K Poretsky and WILLI MUNZENBERG: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Babette Gross. There are also two recent biographies of the remarkable Munzenberg, who practically invented the front group. Best after his widow’s memoir is THE RED MILLIONAIRE: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF WILLY MUNZENBERG, MOSCOW'S SECRET PROPAGANDA TSAR IN THE WEST by Sean McMeekin. (The sensationalistic title is unfortunate.) A second biography by Stephen Holder is so tendentious politically that I really cannot recommend it.

“Another recommendation is SONYA’S REPORT by Ruth Werner. Werner was a very successful agent who remained loyal to the German Democratic Republic to the end. Her memoirs were published there before the Wall fell. It is an exciting read. Also recommended is SECRET SOLDIERS OF THE REVOLUTION: SOVIET MILITARY INTELLIGENCE 1918-1933 by Ramond Leonard, the first full-length discussion of Soviet military intelligence, known by the acronym GRU. The majority of with the more glamorous and well-known Cheka (‘the unsheathed sword of the proletarian revolution’) and its successor organizations (OGPU, GPU, KGB) while ignoring military intelligence, which was even more active in the espionage field. Leonard deals with many of the people whose books I cited elsewhere (Reiss, Poretsky, Krivitsky, and others).

“Although not specifically about espionage, Aino Kuusinen's memoir (THE RINGS OF DESTINY: INSIDE SOVIET RUSSIA FROM LENIN TO BREZHNEV) is noteworthy. Her husband, Otto, was a Finnish Communist, a favorite of Lenin's who rose to be a member of the Soviet politburo whereas her path took her from the corridors of the Kremlin to the Gulag.

"Two Soviet master spies lived to write memoirs. General Orlov, who wrote THE MARCH OF TIME: REMINISCENCES, had a long life (he let Stalin know he knew who was who in the Cambridge ring but would keep quiet if he and his family were untouched) while General Krivitsky died in mysterious circumstances. Krivitsky’s book is IN STALIN'S SECRET SERVICE.

“Although written by a former FBI agent, A TIME FOR SPIES: THEODORE STEPHANOVICH MALLY AND THE ERA OF THE GREAT ILLEGALS by William E. Duff, a biography of the tormented priest turned master spy, is very sensitive and sympathetic to the protagonist's moral qualities. A short summary of the cases discussed above may be found in the first of these two works by Gordon Brook-Shepherd: THE STORM PETRELS: THE FLIGHT OF THE FIRST SOVIET DEFECTORS and THE STORM BIRDS: SOVIET POSTWAR DEFECTORS.

“Although I have not read it, THE LOST SPY: AN AMERICAN IN STALIN'S SECRET SERVICE by Andrew Meier seems of special interest.... According to the blurb, it's the story of Isaiah Oggins, said to be ‘a Columbia University undergraduate who joined the fledgling Communist Party in 1920. Recruited by Soviet intelligence in 1926, he went to Europe in the guise of an academic; his residences acted as centers for Soviet espionage. After 1930 he sailed to China and Manchuria for various undercover schemes, then traveled to Moscow in 1939 during Stalin's purges. Despite long, loyal service, he was arrested and sent to an Arctic gulag, and despite frantic pleas for Oggins's release from his wife, and more modest U.S. government efforts, the Soviets murdered Oggins in 1947 to keep his story from getting out.’

“The literature on the Cambridge spies Philby, McClean, Burgess, Caincross, and Blunt is vast. The most recent books based on long interviews with Philby and those based on the Soviet files are of most interest....The latest books I am aware of are these: MY FIVE CAMBRIDGE FRIENDS (by Yuri Modin -- written from the perspective of a KGB handler); THE PHILBY FILES by Genrikh Borovik and Philip Knightly (makes use of KGB files; ironically, the Center had its own version of James Jesus Angleton, who was so paranoid and suspicious that she led the Center to discount the reliability of their greatest assets); PHILBY: KGB MASTERSPY by Philip Knightly ( Knightly is a serious British scholar who spoke to Philby in his final year, when he wanted his story set down more or less accurately); and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF KIM PHILBY: THE MOSCOW YEARS by Rufina Philby, a personal memoir by Philby's widow.”

To this list of books, Woody Lewis adds, “I think Kim Philby is one of the most fascinating tragic characters in this space. There are so many stories wrapped up in his, and the influence, both ideological and literary (Greene, Fleming, Le Carre, et al), is beyond question. Even Ishiguro's REMAINS OF THE DAY, though concerned with Nazis and not Communists, shows the receptivity with which the ruling class approaches those systems that compete with western democracy, however one defines it.”

To which MSW would add another literary take on espionage in the twentieth century, John Banville, THE UNTOUCHABLE. See notes .

-- Meredith Sue Willis


More frm Jeffrey Sokolow: “I just remembered a wonderful book by Larry Berman entitled A PERFECT SPY about about the Vietnamese reporter for TIME magazine during the war, Pham Xuan An. He also worked as a secret agent for the resistance and was really the North's eyes and ears inside the American camp. He earned the respect of his American colleagues for his honest reporting and kept their respect after they learned that as a patriot his loyalties lay with the Vietnamese rather than the American side. He was uniquely loyal both to his side and also to individuals whom he befriended on the other side. It's quite a story. The book is based on interviews witn An in his final years. The Vientamese also published a short book on An but it's probably a lot harder to get hold of. Anyway, it's not as revelatory as Berman's book. This could open a look at other memoirs of the war by Vietnamese sources, including those who were afterwards disillusioned. I found quite interesting A VIETCONG MEMOIR: AN INSIDE ACCOUNT OF THE VIETNAM WAR AND ITS AFTERMATH by Truong Nhu Tang (former justice miniser for the NLFSVN), FOLLOWING HO CHI MINH: THE MEMOIRS OF A NORTH VIETNAMESE COLONEL by Bui Tin (a journalist, as senior officer on the spot, he took the surrender from the last S. Vietnamese president) and FROM ENEMY TO FRIEND: A NORTH VIETNAMESE PERSPECTIVE ON THE WAR by Bui Tin and Nguyen Ngoc Bich.
“Finally, I understand at least one volume of General Giap's memoirs have appeared in French but not in English; his theoretical works are in my opinion unreadable to the general public but the sections of the memoirs I've seen translated are gripping. Hopefully he will find an American publisher. He is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding military figures of the last century.”


I read UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch, and found it charming, funny, and altogether a pleasant read. It was the first time I felt like I really got what Murdoch is doing. Maybe I needed the first person point of view to hold things steady for me. The tone takes off in a tone of twentieth century Oxbridge frivolity, and the story stays light in the sense that narrator Jake Donahue continues to act foolishly and get into scrapes from which he only disentangles himself with great effort and pain. He makes multiple errors of judgement and lays out red herrings of plot for us wherever he turns– and this works, because they are red herrings to him too. Then, towards the end, he takes his first real job ever, and becomes downright touching in his desire to do well. This is really a story about how a man’s arrogance and errors cause him to suffer, and also about how he comes out a better man at the other end, which makes it a comedy, of course! My hands-down favorite Murdoch so far.


Shelley Ettinger writes to comment on Orson Scott Card's political views (I praised ENDER’s GAME in the last issue– see She says, “Thought I might as well pipe up and let you know that this guy is an ultra-reactionary anti-gay zealot who has repeatedly written and circulated vicious anti-lgbt rants. His rants have gotten a lot of attention from lit bloggers, who are more or less generally progressive and so are appalled by his politics and then torn over whether his politics mean they won't read his fiction anymore.”
Whether a person’s fiction can be separated and enjoyed and respected separately from the person’s political views is worth discussing. To judge Orson Scott Card ’s political views for yourself, take a look at a recent editorial piece by him in the at MORMON TIMES .


And speaking of Shelley Ettinger! She has a brand new literary blog called READ RED, at Her interesting October 9, 2008 post is about her continuing relationship with libraries.
Barbara Riddle-Dvorak also has a new blog that is worth getting to know at


Cat Pleska’s October essay on West Virginia Public Broadcasting at


Anna Egan Smucker’s new book for children is just out– GOLDEN DELICIOUS: A CINDERELLA APPLE STORY is a true tale is set in the American heartland more than 100 years ago. The Stark brothers dream of cultivating the perfect new apple in their Missouri nursery, and a poor farmer in the hills of West Virginia finds a new tree with Golden Delicious apples in his field. He sends the fruit to the Starks, and the brothers are dismissive of the yellow apples– until they taste them!
Noel Smith’s poems THE WELL STRING have been published by Motes books ( with a foreword by Silas House. Lee Smith calls the poems “highly charged with intensity and originality,” and Ron Rash says, “THE WELL STRING is a significant contribution to Appalachian Literature.”
Also new from Motes Books is Jim Minick’s new book of poems HER SECRET SONG at
A CURE FOR SUICIDE by Larissa Shmailo has just been published by Červená Barva Press at
Janna McMahan has an enjoyable article about her family coming to appreciate her writing career at
– and she has a new book coming out in 2009!

Dory L. Hudspeth’s book of poems I’LL FLY AWAY has just been published by Finishing Line Press at . George Ella Lyon says “Dory’s Hudspeth’s poems catch your attention sideways, surprise your field of vision, lift off just when you think you’ve got them in focus.”
The multi-talented poet Arthur T. Wilson narrates “The Sketchbook” on the Raymond Wojcik CD PICTURES AND STORIES. See
The fall issue of THE SALT RIVER REVIEW is up at
The Autumn 2008 issue of PERSIMMON ( is up with poetry from Northeast women over sixty, including Judith Arcana, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Alicia Ostriker, and Susan Donnelly. Also sculpture by Lorraine Bonner, fiction by Elizabeth Morris and Louise Smith, and nonfiction by Bonnie Lee Black and Marian Clark. They are accepting West Coast women poets’ work from Nov. 1st to Dec. 15th. Check guidelines at .
Fall 2008 issue of THE INNISFREE POETRY JOURNAL is now available at In addition to established and emerging poets, there is in their "Closer Look" series, a generous selection of poems from the books of Marianne Boruch, including her new collection, GRACE, FALLEN FROM (Wesleyan University Press, 2008). You can read Innisfree 7 three ways: (1) online, (2) as a downloadable PDF file, (3) as a 106-page, 6x9, perfect bound hard copy you can purchase from the print-on-demand publisher for $6.65 plus shipping. The direct link for a hard copy is


In the September/October 2008 issue of the SCBWI magazine (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators at, Joëlle Anthony shares some websites on plot, story, structure, and more: take a look at ;;; and .


FICTIONALLY SPEAKING: FICTION AND CREATIVE NONFICTION, a workshop with with Thaddeus Rutkowski on Saturdays, Nov. 1, 15, 22, noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 5, 7-9 p.m. At the Asian American Writers' Workshop, 16 W. 32nd St., 10th floor. This is a workshop for writers new to fiction or creative nonfiction, as well as those who want to take their work to the next level. Traditional and experimental prose writers welcome. Cost: $175 general, $150 members. Contact: or 212 494-0061. For more information, go to
Also starting in November if you happen to live in suburban New Jersey is MSW's Prose Narrative workshop for Playwright’s Theater on Thursdays 12:30 PM to 2:30 PM starting in mid- November. Go to and scroll down to “Writing Prose Narrative.”