Monday, September 21, 2009

Books for Readers # 123

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers #123

Autumn Equinox Issue
September 22, 2009

Bronze trees already?
Underfoot, a few crisp leaves--
Precious autumn green.

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Special Contents of this Issue:

More on leftwing cowboy poetry
Special notes for writers
Thulani Davis at Pennysylvania's “Quest for Freedom”
Jeff Sokolow/Johnny Sundstrom Stories
Olive Schreiner

New Jersey Writers: MSW is teaching Prose Narrative Writing 5 Thursdays starting October 15, 2009, 12:30 - 2:30 PM at Playwrights' Theater in Madison, New Jersey: For information, click here .

This is a long issue! A lot of news, a lot of responses to past issues, and I couldn’t be happier. Please keep your news, recommendations, and responses coming.

I want to offer a round-up of my summer reading, which was all-over-the-map: There was CITIZEN TOM PAINE, on of Howard Fast’s historical fictions, sometimes sloppily written, always wonderfully old school left-wing. (He's the guy who wrote the book Spartacus). When the writing is good, though, it is sharp as a good knife blade: this one shines in its excellent descriptions of the Continental Army at war, for example.

In striking contrast, I read a couple of Nabokov books, SPEAK, MEMORY and THE GIFT, and had my usual ambivalent reaction to Nabokov: amusement, admiration, occasional impatience with the preciousness of some of his interests. I’d love to hear the opinions of others on Nabokov.

I also read THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM by Olive Schreiner, a wonderful example of a self-taught genius who had a terribly difficult life, largely because she was a woman and not rich. This was also the first major art work from (white) South Africa. Schreiner was an early feminist, trying so hard, describing so beautifully, maundering on with philosophical musings, but everything passionate and heartfelt. She took this manuscript with her when she went to England at the age of 26, and it is very much a young person's book. It deserves a lot of readers and discussing, but for now, just find a copy and read it for the doomed, homemade feminist Lyndall and the inarticulate dreamer-farmboy Waldo. For the Germans and Boers and English and in the background the people who were there first, and the stunning landscape that, I suppose, even preceded them.

Also a couple of chick-lit books, BABY-PROOF by Emily Giffin, which got better as it went along but had very flat language and many references to popular products and culture that were perfectly up-to-date– back in 2005. Rather more witty and funnier was Sophie Kinsella’s CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC. Well, now I’ve been there and done that, but if anyone has some chiclets that are super funny, I might try again.

In this same informal study of popular fiction (a.k.a. what sells) another Joyce Carol Oates novel, BECAUSE IT IS BITTER AND BECAUSE IT IS MY HEART, and my first Jodi Picoult, HARVESTING THE HEART. I may expand a little on these two at some time in the future, but here I want to say that both of these writers are major story telling talents but (didn’t you feel that “but” coming?) both also seem to me to have a sense of entitlement that leads them to dip into places they haven’t bothered to imagine fully. That is to say, their stories always move, and when they are fully engaged, they are masterful, but they are not fully engaged at all times. I realize that I am merely skimming the surface of some thoughts about popular literature here.

What else? I finally read Ishmael Reed’s late sixties explosion MUMBO JUMBO; some other fantasy and science fiction including the rest of Robin Hobbs’s Farseer trilogy, ending with ASSASSIN’S QUEST. I tried Jack Vance, one of the original space jockey novelists, hoping for some of the pleasure I got in the Assassin fantasy novels. Vance was recently profiled in an article in the NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, but he didn’t seem as good as the TIMES writer thought he was. Maybe I read the wrong books? They were fun in places, but thin, like sketches for STAR TREK episodes.

Some treats: the first of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, CAN YOU FORGIVE HER? and Peggy Backman’s miscellany of stories, memoir, poems, and songs DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? This is a wonderful entertainment: in the longest section, “Such Is Paradise,” a young woman takes boats and planes around various small Caribbean Islands and has near-catastrophic experiences but comes out with new understanding of people and places. There’s also a hilarious story about trying to scam the system and get an insurance company to pay for lost eye glasses. Since a police report is required, the narrator ends up feeling increasingly guilty– in the criminal as well as moral sense! It’s a small book, each story direct and sharply told. An engaging read, whether it really happened or not!

Another treat this summer was two visits to the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts to see an exhibit comparing the work of Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove. Afterwards, I read couple of books on O’Keeffe, notably a good biography, FULL BLOOM: THE ART AND LIFE OF GEORGIA O'KEEFFE by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. This answered a lot of my questions– especially delineated the complex relationship between O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz, which was at once highly fruitful for her and psychologically destructive at times. The story of her last years– thirty or forty of them– is compelling, and sad only if you are looking for a happy ending to a human life, which is absurd given the end for all of us.

And finally– I want to give my own response at some length to a book recommended here two issues ago by Dreama Frisk: Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF. First, I highly recommend Dreama’s review of it, and I recommend the book itself, I'm going to begin with what I consider a serious flaw: the sometimes annoying narration by a voice who happens to be Death. Yes, that Death.

Death isn’t annoying all the time. Sometimes Death works well, especially later in the book after the voice is established, but for me, the personification is often just too much, raising too many questions about details that aren’t part of book: For example, What religion does Death follow? Where does he take all these souls he collects so tenderly? Is Death a he? He has that Regular Guy tone that I associate with the male. Why are there no conversations with anyone after he picks them up except Liesel? What is the circumstance of his telling this to us? Are we having coffee together? Is he about to take me, the reader?

I don’t mean to be too literal-minded here, but rather to come to my main point, which is that I’m not sure Death adds much to this really good story of an orphaned German girl and the wonderful people around her, most of whom die in an Allied bombing. Death’s voice is, as far as I can tell, pretty much an intrusive author of the old fashioned nineteenth century type– a perfectly useful voice, a time-honored way of telling a story– but a style that writers today feel has to be made original. Death makes lots of interesting observations about human nature and war, but I don’t understand why the Author doesn’t admit he is just speaking for himself. It’s an unnecessary superstructure, but the novel inside the superstructure is lovely: the family that takes in Liesel; Max, the Jew they hide; Liesel’s best friend and should-have-been beloved, Rudy who wants to be Jesse Owens. A whole wonderful suffering Germany I never knew or imagined.

Questions at the end: we know Liesel survives for a long life and marries. Who does she marry? Also, what happens to Max? He survives the concentration camp, but does Liesel marry him? I’m willing to accept the questions, and many of the writerly conventions, but I wish we all could trust our stories to be enough in themselves.

-- Meredith Sue Willis


Shelley Ettinger has a fascinating blog post about a review of one of her published stories– how the reviewer read a different but still good story from the one she wrote.

Debbie Carter, literary agent ( – see her piece on whether to hire a book doctor or freelance editor in issue 121 ), adds this:

“It’s good to see writers talking about their experiences with editors. I wanted to add an account from John Wray, author of LOWBOY (, who spoke at the writers’ space PARAGRAPH last month. He hired a book doctor when his editor at Knopf no longer had time to edit his books. For his first novel she gave him one page of feedback but none for his second, CANAAN’S TONGUE , at which point he hired a freelance editor, Ethan Nosowsky, and was glad he did. Together they decided the manuscript didn't need line editing, but Nosowsky contributed a number of useful ideas about the narrative’s structure and looked for contradictions and inconsistencies. The process took about a month, and Wray paid Nosowsky ‘a modest sliver’ of his advance for an enormous amount of work in the salt mines, as he put it. Wray found Nosowsky through a friend, novelist Akhil Sharma, but also relied on feedback from a couple writer-friends. Since working with an outside editor is ‘a roll of the dice,’ Wray recommended that writers look for someone based on recommendations of those they trust. At the end of the second novel, Wray asked Knopf to assign him another editor, which unleashed a firestorm in the editor’s office and forced him to change publishers. He’s happy with his new editor at Farrar Strauss Giroux, who checked in from time to time during the writing of LOWBOY, which Wray said was rare. But he still sought the opinions of author-friends.

“It’s good to see an author care this much about the quality of his work, but you have to wonder about publishers’ standards when in-house editors are overextended and not available to edit. Not all authors engage outside editors. As publishers throw more responsibilities and costs to authors, sometimes pushing them to hire publicity and marketing consultants as well, what are they doing as publishers? Recording artists were forced to take on more costs when more and more artists brought finished product to record companies and hired publicists because record companies were short-staffed. Now technology enables them to sell their own music on the net. Will there come a time when authors don’t need publishers?“


It seems that there may really be only be a handful of original stories. Jeffrey Sokolow writes:

“I really should pay more attention to your blog. I was just glancing at Issue no. 115 and saw the Arapaho story about the turkey in the tree that Johnny Sundstrom passed on to you.

“Would you believe that this is a variant of a story first told (in print that I know of) in the DISCIPLINA CLERICALIS of Petrus Alfonsi, born Moshe Sefardi, an 11th century Spanish Jewish apostate physician whose collection of 33 tales translated from Arabic into Latin constitutes the first corpus of eastern tales transmitted to the west, including stories from the Panchatantra (known in the Arabic world as Kalilah and Dimnah).
“In Alfoni's version, three travelers are making the haj to Mecca (in a Sufi variant, they are students crossing the Himalayas): two city slickers and a country bumpkin. With only enough flour left for one loaf, the city slickers conspire to defraud the bumpkin by agreeing that on awaking, they will each describe their dream, and whoever had the most marvelous dream will get to eat the loaf. They leave the bread baking over the coals and go to sleep. The country fellow is no dope; he waits till the others are asleep and eats the half-cooked loaf himself. In the morning, the city slickers each pretend to wake up with a start, saying they each have had the most marvelous dream. One reports that the heavens opened up and two angels conducted him before the throne of the Holy One. The other reports that the earth opened up and two devils seized him and brought him before the Evil One. ‘But you,’ they ask the bumpkin, ‘what did you dream?’ ‘Well,’ says the bumpkin, ‘I dreamed that one of you was taken up to heaven, and the other taken down to hell; I figured neither one of you would be back any time soon, so I got up and ate the bread.’

“The day I read this thousand-year-old story I was listening to a Celtic show on the radio and at exactly the moment I finished, the host recounted a story that began, ‘Three Irishmen were on a fishing trip" and ended with "so I got up and ate the bread.’ True story.”

I love Jeff's experience: that there so many versions of stories– that we are always recycling our stories, and, of course, making them our own. Check out my notes on a wonderful novel from some years back called NO NEW JOKES by Steven Bloom.


Alice Philipson has this to say about Morris Older’s piece in Issue 122 on leftwing cowboy poets:

“Well, OK but a couple of 'good' guys does not a genre make. There are exceptions to every rule. Hell, I even have a book on Jewish Pioneers. Because they were the exception, not the rule. And so I maintain that just like Country Music can have a number of songs that are left's the exception, not the rule. And, of course, one never really knows the mind you mention, many of the folks are right wing extremists whose love of the land and the range is based more on being away from civilization and its burdens than about the beauty that co-exists within the push/pull of modern society.

“I can ride the range all day, and frequently do, but I'm never going to be ‘White.’ I'll always be an over-educated woman of Jewish descent and lesbian identity. And me and the Cowboy Poetry folks will share the trait of mutual suspicion. But I can hide behind my middle age white face until they show their hand: and it's almost always one I don't want to be around. Sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-urban to the point of hating museums and the Opera. Those hearts of gold when helping you with a trailer are all too often the same hands that go vote against me whenever give the chance. When the best you can say about a genre is that it is ‘not all bad’'s bad enough.”


Howard Gilman writes this in response to the New York Times piece on Hemingway’s last book (Don’t Touch ‘A Moveable Feast’ By A. E. Hotchner July 19, 2009 here. “I happened to have read the Hotchner/Hemingway item in the TIMES and while I found most of it credible and persuasive, I must admit a feeling of proletarian disbelief washed over me when I came to lines like ‘Ernest and I were having lunch at the Ritz in Paris.’ Does he not know he comes off sounding like a parody when he says things like that? Does he not care? Is it a parody?”


Ingrid Hughes writes about an article I mentioned in Issue 121: “The summer issue (July 16) of THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOK had a long piece, ‘Holocaust: The Ignored Reality’ by Timothy Snyder on the less known holocausts of WWII-- civilians killed by the Germans and Soviet Union. He says, ‘The Germans killed somewhat more than ten million civilians in the major mass killing actions, about half of them Jews, half of them non-Jews... mostly from the same part of Europe.’ It's a long, dense, informative piece. I mention this because I hate the idea that Jews are specially privileged to thrust a people from their land, lock them behind a wall, and carry out attacks, some would say genocidal attacks, on them by their- the Jewish- history as victims. There were many victims of the Nazis- Jews were not the only ones. Hard to read so much about Jewish history without thinking of the Jewish state today, for which my feelings are very similar to the ones we had for the US during the Vietnam War.”
A friend of Ingrid’s, Samirah Alkasim, who is Palestinian-American, recommends these titles regarding Israel and Palestine: Illiane Pape's THE ETHNIC CLEANSING OF PALESTINE and Rashid Khalidi's PALESTINIAN IDENTITY: THE CONSTRUCTION OF MODERN NATIONAL CONSCIOUSNESS. Samirah also has an interest in an entirely different field, cinema. She recommends Stella Bruzzi's NEW DOCUMENTARY, 2nd edition, “where she proposes that we consider the performative nature of all documentaries as a way to negotiate the dialectical relationship between representation and the ‘real,’ where so much boring discussion about documentary gets stuck.”


Alice Robinson-Gilman recently read THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT (discussed in BOOKS FOR READERS ISSUE #66 as an audio book. She says: “I've adopted the habit of listening to audio CDs while I'm (trying) to fall asleep. Although I've read the book, the CD was amazing due to the reader, or ‘narrator’ as they call them. It really brought Chrisopher alive and made understandable what autism or Aspergers is for one person. I got it from the Maplewood (New Jersey) Library and heartedly recommend it.”


Check out this series of book store discussions centering on Thulani Davis’s MY CONFEDERATE KINFOLK ) as part of Pennysylvania's “Quest for Freedom Live and Learn” weekend. Her website is at .


Eva Kollisch's book THE GROUND UNDER MY FEET has been translated into German, and an Austrian publisher, Czernin Verlag, is bringing it out in Spring 2010. Eva is appearing at a Symposium in Vienna on the subject of Memory and Exile. The other participating writers come from various backgrounds of persecution, resistance, uprooting, and exile. The symposium was organized by the Theodor Kramer Gesellschaft and will take place in Vienna from September 24 - 27, 2009. On Sept. 29th, Eva will give a reading in Vienna of her story "Father" (Vater), followed by an interview.
Stefan Bradley’s book HARLEM VS. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: BLACK STUDENT POWER IN THE LATE 1960S (University of Illinois Press) has just been released. For more information, see the following op-ed piece and an interview with Professor Bradley regarding the book and student activism at Also, see Robert Feldman’s review of at .
Jane Lazarre’s new novel SOME PLACE QUITE UNKNOWN continues to get excellent responses–see She also has new prose in the latest issue of THE SALT RIVER REVIEW (
Look for Rolaine Hochstein’s stories in several recent publications, hard copy and online:
“Art in America” Confrontation #96/97 Fall 2006; Spanish Translation of “Art in America” in Revista Universidad de Antioquia #296 april-June 2009;“Don’t Tell the Cuzzins” in Glimmer Train #65, winter 2008;
“Bronik Returns to Vienna” in Prairie Schooner spring 2008 (; “Virtuous Woman” coming in Glimmer Train spring 2010 (winner First Prize in Very Short Fiction;
and just up, “The Scam” in Persimmon Tree ( Sept. 15-Dec. 15 2009.
Charles Swanson (see has two new books of poems: FARM LIFE AND LEGEND, a chapbook, is due for release in November from Finishing Line Press ( AFTER THE GARDEN: SELECTED RESPONSES TO THE PSALMS is a full length collection available for sale now from Motes Books (
Jack Hussey’s book of Concord novellas, The Ghosts of Walden, ( is now available.
Barbara Crooker has new poems up online: "What the Conch Told Me" You have to scroll down about five poems to find it.
"Zen" and "Landscape in Winter":
Plus the wonderful news that her new book has been taken by C & R Press (no title yet), she read at the Library of Congress in their Poetry at Noon series on September 22, 2009.
Anna Eagan Smucker Day in Harrison County, West Virginia! ( Anna Egan Smucker, an award winning author of Harrison County, West Virginia, was honored with a window display of her work and a reception on Thursday, September 10, 2009 at James and Law, 217 West Main Street, Clarksburg, West Virginia. The event recognized Ms. Smucker’s latest honor: her recent children’s book, Golden Delicious: A Cinderella Apple Story,was the choice of the West Virginia Library Commission and the WV Center for the Book to represent WV at the 2009 National Book Festival in Washington, D. C.


There's a new post at "In This Light" about Dani Shapiro's novel Black & White and the influence of the photographs of Sally Mann. You can read it at:
Classic television online and worth laughing at– thanks to Debbie Carter for the terrific Youtube clip: LUCY WRITES A NOVEL at .
Here’s a review of Redjeb Jordania’s book ESCAPE FROM THE SOUTH FORK AND OTHER STORIES at
Don’t miss the new issue of PERSIMMON TREE , especially the story about a woman who gets scammed by Rolaine Hochstein. There are also poems, a nonfiction piece about aphasia by Ruth Resch, and other fiction and visual art.
A new literary magazine online, THE COLLAGIST, is edited and e-published by the folks at Dzanc Books. The debut issue is available at: The Collagist is edited by Matt Bell with Matthew Olzmann as Poetry Editor. The debut issue includes fiction by Chris Bachelder, Kevin Wilson, Kim Chinquee, Matthew Salesses, and Gordon Lish, plus an excerpt from Laird Hunt's forthcoming novel Ray of the Star. Charles Jensen, Oliver de la Paz, and Christina Kallery each contribute several new poems, and Ander Monson and David McLendon offer unique takes on the personal essay. The Collagist's first book review section includes coverage of Terry Galloway's MEAN LITTLE DEAF QUEER, Michal Ajvaz's THE OTHER CITY, and Brian Evenson's FUGUE STATE, as well as a video review of Jonathan Baumbach's YOU, OR THE INVENTION OF MEMORY.
Just out: the ninth issue of THE INNISFREE POETRY JOURNAL, which you can find at on a computer near you. In addition to contributions of new work from thirty fine poets, they feature fourteen wonderful poems from the books of Alice Friman in their "Closer Look" series.

A BOOK LIST YOU PROBABLY DON”T KNOW ABOUT, one of the online sources for out-of-print and other books that I recommend, keeps lists of which out-of-print books are selling best:


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. 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 tried and generally like, a paid lending library called Paperspine. See if it works for you at .


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.
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