Meredith Sue Willis's
Books for Readers #124
October 17, 2009
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Special Contents of this Issue:
This issue has some of my reading plus a review by Hilton Obenzinger of Stefan Bradley’s new book on the Columbia University sit-ins in 1968, plus an article on an experience in self-publishing-- and the resignation of a reader over comments on Israel.
Given the preponderance of political material this issue, it’s appropriate that some of my recent reading was on historical subjects. CLOUDSPLITTER, a novel by Russell Banks about John Brown, seems especially appropriate as today is part of the 150th anniversary of the radical Abolitionist’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, then in Virginia, now in my home state of West Virginia. Banks’s novel made me want to read a biography of Brown– his fictionalization was vivid, and a lot of interesting material is set forth, and I like his take on Brown (not crazy, but willing to sow bloody terror to stop slavery). I also like the use of peripheral narration, but I had a problem with the narrator. I found Owen Brown and his endless angst tedious. I kept wanting to get back to the Old Man and his activities. Owen is like some extremely neurotic college boy set down in the middle of the abolitionists' radical wing in the nineteenth century. So while maybe half the book was quite wonderful, I just didn’t believe in Owen and tended to skim whenever I saw long pages of his internal life coming up. I keep finding lean powerful books hidden in huge obese Great American novels. Or maybe I’m just turning into a curmudgeon.
I also read a solid popular history, Joseph J. Ellis’s FOUNDING BROTHERS: THE REVOLUTIONARY GENERATION . I enjoyed this a lot– it covers Madison, Hamilton, Burr, Washington, Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson, beginning with the hook of a dramatization of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr over here on the Jersey side of the Hudson river. By telling it as a story, Ellis allows himself to give a lot of touches of what life was like then– a nice lead-in to chapters about people we know best as engravings on paper currency.
The second chapter had the good grace directly to deal with slavery, the great rent in the fabric of the forming nation, from the earliest days patched very badly. There was a compromise in the new constitution that southerners and northerners understood completely differently as to when and whether slavery would end. The chapter also reminds us that this revolutionary generation was less than a hundred years before the Civil War– terrifying to think of how much suffering was to come– how much suffering was going on every moment in lives of the enslaved people. One of the most striking things was how the revolutionary generation was totally incapable of imagining the humanity and internal lives of enslaved people, freed blacks, or the native Americans.
After that, it was mostly personalities: interesting enough. The chapter on Washington in particular, rehabilitated him for me– not that George Washington’s reputation has any need of my approval, but I have suffered from lifelong sleepiness whenever Washingtons’ dignified visage appears before me. Ellis doesn’t think a lot of Jefferson, whom he finds too full of ideals and gauzy hopes with no sense of reality, but is very fond of John Adams who sounds like he was a serious neurotic, but with high principles and an excellent advisor in his wife Abigail Adams.
In many ways, James Madison turns out to be the most important of them all– he gave flesh to Jefferson’s castles in the air and seems to have invented the kind of behind the scenes politicking that underlies most of the decisions our elected officials make. Franklin comes off as not very serious as a politician, although a good scientist and popular with the ladies. I regretted the absence of Thomas Paine– I guess he didn’t make the cut as he was never really part of the ruling class, and these folks surely were, whether natural born with wealth or self-made.
Finally, I want to mention a lovely memoir: Patsy Harman’s THE BLUE COTTON GOWN: A MIDWIFE'S MEMOIR. This touching book is made up of the stories of a midwife in northern West Virginia. Patsy Harman and her gynecologist husband start as back-to-the-landers, but end up going to professional school and creating a life of compassionate care for their patients–and difficult financial struggles to keep their practice alive.
After the first quarter of the book, you begin to recognize recurring characters, a long line of unwillingly pregnant young women and unhealthily pregnant women of all ages. There is a death here, a narrow escape there. One woman has 7 children and a convoluted love life that has all the qualities of a real stereotype– ane yet Harman manages to share something of what it would be like to be such a woman
In the end, the story is as much about how this marriage partnership works as about the patients. The middle-aged sex is a lot of fun– nicely defiant of our culture’s worship of youth and beauty. Harman’s religiosity is an interesting part of the story, too– quirky and never used as an excuse or explanation. Everything is open for discussion – how a gynecological practice goes into debt, why ob-gyn doctors give up obstetrics, how long term lovers keep enjoying each other, the narrator’s own neuroses and her religion. This book is a happy discovery.
I just finished HARLEM VS. COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY by Stefan Bradley, and I urge anyone interested in Columbia 1968 to read it. It's an excellent history told from the vantage point of the Harlem residents and black Columbia students, particularly those in SAS [Student Afro-American Society], placing their roles as the central force of the student uprising, the catalyst that brought the crisis over Morningside Park to a head. This in itself is an important corrective to all the media distortions focusing on SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and Mark Rudd. It's a terrific, albeit incomplete, history of 1968, an important addition to the small list of books on the occupation and strike.
Bradley also reviews the history of black student advocacy for the neighborhood and to create a black studies department, and he relates struggles in other Ivy League schools that involved black students in alliance with black communities as central or major actors in the immediate wake of Columbia: Harvard, Yale, Penn, and Cornell. He examines each of these rebellions within the framework of Black Power politics, the objectives, strategies, and tactics detailed in the book BLACK POWER by Carmichael and Hamilton, and he determines that the rebellions all succeeded because the black organizers followed its philosophy (e.g., separate organization, alliances only when blacks could determine the terms). Bradley's analysis firmly counters many who argue that Black Power politics was generally unsuccessful. Sadly, Columbia remained far behind, establishing the equivalent of a black studies department only in the 90s.
HARLEM VS. CU also presents a capsule history of the early machinations of how CU got hold of the park (thank you Robert Moses), and the community's early opposition. I was impressed to realize how much Parks Director Thomas Hoving was a vociferous opponent from very early on. Bradley presents a fascinating analysis of the initial confrontation at the fence surrounding the construction site, arguing that at that point students and community members had crossed the line away from non-violence. Without the knowledge of martial arts allowing one of the black students to push back a police officer from reaching for his gun, everything may have been very different, bloodier and possibly deadly. With all of this struggle, it still amazes me that the gym was stopped and a newly planted tree sits on the site now to commemorate what was not built.
Most of all, he tells the story of Hamilton Hall, of Ray Brown, Jr., Cicero Wilson, Thulani Davis, and all the others.. Even though I participated in a large historical event I feel like I'm still learning what happened. Admittedly, I saw most of what happened from the perspective of the Low Library Commune, even after the bust, so it's only a small corner. (And Bradley has really filled in a lot of what I didn't know.) But, given my limited perspective, I think there are parts of the book that could have been stronger. Even though Bradley relates the history of black student rebellions in Ivy League schools, he doesn't situate Columbia within the context of San Francisco State and Berkeley Third World Strikes that were even more successful in establishing ethnic studies departments, along with opposition to the war. He doesn't mention the CCNY strike for open admissions, which would have made SDS's demand for Columbia to adopt open admissions in 1969 more understandable. There are a number of places where the sources are thin or skewed – I wouldn't rely on Orest Ranum's account of Mark Rudd talking to himself in the middle of the April 23 events! I also wouldn't rely so much on Rudd's account of what happened as representative of all SDS or all the rebelling white students. His perspective is essential, but Bradley draws too many conclusions from Mark's analysis. I know I have differences, and there are others who could have also been quoted, e.g., Lew Cole, Robert Roth, Juan Gonzalez.
Bradley mentions the apparent class difference between the white students and working class Irish police. But he doesn't examine the crucial dynamic of the role of Jewish students, of the many first-generation white college students, and of students whose parents participated in the CP or other parts of the Old Left. The role of Jews is particularly important because huge fractures were emerging in the so-called black-Jewish alliance, particularly SNCC's response to the 1967 war and the Bedford-Stuyvesant teacher's strike. It's also important for realizing the seriousness with which many of the Jewish students took what we were doing: trying not to be "good Germans." Many of us were not rebelling against our parents– we were still fighting the Nazis. But maybe I have a biased outlook.
I also think the book reinforces various stereotypes about the white students, and that's woven into the analysis of why and how black students asked white students to leave Hamilton Hall. Black students had a relationship with Harlem; white students were the community that SDS and other white students related to. That means there really were people just coming along for the ride– because they were simply students, the mass base agitated to action. Nevertheless, the white students responded to the gym and the war, along with opposing Columbia's autocratic behavior. The mass base for the black students was Harlem, not other students. That made for vast differences, as Bradley notes, but these differences did not arise out of moral failure, as is often the way it’s depicted (“spoiled rich kids”), and I think Bradley could have underscored that point more.
I still insist that students in Low attempted to keep the place as neat as possible, considering the crowding. I never saw trashing, and except for the initial dethroning of Kirk's inner sanctum (David Shapiro smoking the famous cigar, etc.), we kept the place clean. Bradley unfortunately doesn't mention how files on IDA and other aspects of Columbia's relationship to the neighborhood were indeed useful and published in THE RAT. Going through the files and copying and sending out the information – that was a sophisticated intelligence operation. And as for trashing: One of the most stunning experiences of the whole thing for me was reading A.M Rosenthal and the articles in the NY Times after the bust describing paint splattered, broken furniture – all done by the cops and used as propaganda. There was some damage in Low and the other buildings, and two fires were set during the May 21-22 re-occupation of Hamilton Hall, fist fights between the Majority Coalition and SDS and its allies – but what was remarkable was how little violence or damage was done.
One last quibble: Bradley mentions me as belonging to SDS. Nope, never was a member. And by 68-69 I was pretty disgusted with the in-fighting and posing– and I instead concentrated my energies on all the in-fighting and posing involved in the literary scene. I may seem to be laying on a lot of criticism here– but that's only because I'm biased by having been there. HARLEM VS. CU is an excellent work of history, and, again, anyone interested in 1968 should read it.
RESPONSE TO ISSUE # 123
Ardian Gill writes, “I haven't been able to keep up with J C Oates' book a week so missed the title (discussed in Issue #123) BECAUSE IT'S BITTER... but it was nice to have the memory of Stephen Crane's poem:
A man sat by the roadside
Eating his heart
Is it good, friend, I asked
"It is bitter
but I like it because it's bitter
and because it is my heart"
Or something like that.
The best book I've read recently is Doctorow's THE MARCH, Civil War novel of Sherman et al. The audio tape is wonderful. Right now I've started Valerie Martin's PROPERTY, and it too is wonderful. First person in the form of a brutal slave owner's wife who hates him.”
I was sorry to receive the following email shortly after I sent out Issue # 123:
“I was going to send you a note about a particularly good book I've just finished. Instead, I plan to unsubscribe from your newsletter as soon as I hit ‘send.’ What has disappointed, insulted and, ultimately, angered me so is the following comment from Ingrid Hughes which you saw fit to publish: ‘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.’
“I understand that politics are an integral part of your newsletter, your writing and, indeed, your life. I also appreciate that you lie on the left end of the political spectrum. I have no problem with that; on a number of issues, I find myself well left-of-center, too. However, Ms. Hughes' comment is more than political. It is inaccurate and hateful.
“I am not a Zionist, but I fully reject the idea that the sole reason for the state of Israel is because they were ‘victims of the Nazis.’ Jews have had a historical claim on the land for millennia. But that's not even the most troubling part of Ms. Hughes' diatribe. It is her first sentence--blaming ‘Jews’ for carrying out genocidal attacks– which is incredibly offensive. I am Jewish; so, I believe, is your husband. Has he been out killing people? I didn't think so; nor have I. So, first, let's establish that Jews and Israelis are not synonymous.
“Second, and more importantly than semantics, is Ms. Hughes' complete reversal of cause and effect. Israelis do not launch unprovoked rocket attacks on civilian areas. They do not detonate bombs on buses or crowded markets. Each and every act of war committed by Israel has been a direct response to an attack on its people. Let's get that straight: Israelis are not ‘privileged’ to act as killers. They are defending themselves.
“That is the third, and final, point I wish to make: to equate the situation in the Middle East today with that of Vietnam 40 years ago is to betray an ignorance of history. I majored in East Asian Studies at Harvard and did a senior paper on the political development of Vietnam, which hardly qualifies me as an expert, but which evidently makes me far more informed than Ms. Hughes. North and South Vietnam were locked in a colonial war begun by the French and continued by the US. It was bad policy, as some of us knew then and most everyone recognizes now. However, neither the Viet Cong nor the north Vietnamese were launching attacks on the US, nor were they unilaterally targeting civilians in the south. If one wishes to draw parallels between the actions of the north Vietnamese of 40 years ago and the Palestinians today, I can understand. But to say that Israel's actions are ‘very similar’ to those of the US, which stuck its nose where it clearly didn't belong, is just damn wrong.
“Israel exists. Ms. Hughes should accept that; if not, she should join Hamas or move to Iran, where her ideology would be more acceptable.”
Now, while I certainly don’t intend this newsletter to become involved in back-and-forth on this particular issue, I did want to give Ingrid Hughes the opportunity to respond. She wrote:
“In response to [ your former reader], I want to apologize for writing a little carelessly and perhaps suggesting the idea that I think Israel has no right to exist. That is not my position. I cannot apologize for my horror at Israeli policies, however. Perhaps that horror is stronger because I am a Jew. I was not comparing Israel's war to the American war in Vietnam, since as the writer says, they are extremely different, but comparing my feelings about it to the furious outrage I had about Vietnam. But I won't make efforts to go into more detail about my views, since I'm sure you don't want to turn your newsletter over to a debate of such a controversial issue.”
– Ingrid Blaufarb Hughes
Peggy Backman writes: “I used Create Space (a subsidiary of Amazon.com) to publish my book of short stories DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? I am quite satisfied with the final product and their service. I particularly like that they list your book on Amazon.com. People can buy their books from Amazon or from Createspace.com. You can consult their web site, https://www.createspace.com/ for information specific to your needs.
“One of the good things about CS is that there are no upfront costs, so to speak. You do have to pay for each proof (including postage). But you only pay for copies as you need them (plus postage), so it's better to order a number of books at a time.
“To give you an idea: If your book is small and sells for about $12, their charge per book might be $4 plus postage, which could come to about $7 out of pocket for a proof. However, when you order your copies, the price of postage drops significantly maybe adding an additional dollar or even less to your base cost.
“The have a Pro program where you pay about $39 upfront. Then your book can drop to about $2.50 in our example. With postage you might be paying $6 for a proof (with postage) and then much less, maybe $4 for additional books. (Please bear in mind that these are rough estimates and depend on the size of the book).
“What is good is that at any time you can make changes to your book, both inside and on the cover. The only charge would be that they require you to order a proof. But this is a great service as should you find typos or wish to make a revision, to do so is very simple and the cost of the proof minimal.
“The turn around time from submission to getting books is quite good. It may take 4-5 days to get a proof and then once you approve it and order your books, it would be another 4-5 days.
“They are efficient about answering questions online: quick response and helpful.
“You have to submit camera-ready copy as PDF. I found formatting the book a bit difficult and frustrating at first— particularly the headers and page numbering– but finally got the hang of it. I have a Mac, so that may be part of the problem as I think they are more geared to the PC.
“Also, PhotoShop is probably the best if you want to make a custom cover. I don’t have PhotoShop, so used one of their cover templates and found it easy to use and the result attractive. The templates give you the option to add some custom imagery.
“I wish they had distribution via bookstores (but I guess since CS is owned by Amazon, they want to control their market). They do have some kind of a discount code for bookstores, but I have not tried using it.
“In summary, I plan to use them again for self-publishing— unless of course something better comes along!”
SUGGESTIONS FOR KEEPING UP WITH PUBLISHING FROM AGENT DEBBIE CARTER
Debbie Carter (see her article in Issues #121 ) writes, “Are your readers aware of podcasts by LIBRARY JOURNAL and SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL? Some podcasts are about library issues but some focus on bookselling categories like mystery and juvenile/YA. The podcasts are only an hour long and can be a convenient way to keep up with new books. Archives of past podcasts are available on these sites: http://www.libraryjournal.com/index.asp?layout=webcasttoc
ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT ISBNs FROM RON PRAMSCHUFER
George Brosi, Keith Maillard, and Phyllis Wilson Moore have articles on Mary Lee Settle (1918-2005) in a book called CONTEMPORARY LITERARY CRITICISM: CRITICISM OF THE WORKS OF TODAY'S NOVELISTS, POETS, PLAYWRIGHTS, SHORT STORY WRITERS, SCRIPTWRITERS, AND OTHER CREATIVE WRITERS, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter.(Detroit: Gale, 2009). Settle's career is the subject of pages 300-352. These essays are reprinted from APPALACHIAN HERITAGE (winter 2006), edited by Brosi.
A staged reading of Rosary Hartel O’Neill’s WHITE SUITS IN SUMMER: Sunday, October 25, 2009 at 2:00 PM at the Hudson Opera House in Hudson, New York, and Monday, November 2, 2009, at 7:00 PM at the National Arts Club 159 Grammercy Park South in NYC.
Jarvis Masters has a new HarperOne book, THAT BIRD HAS MY WINGS: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN INNOCENT MAN ON DEATH ROW. Alan Senauke writes that Jarvis Masters is “an African-American man on death row for a gang-related prison murder he did not participate in. While in San Quentin, most of those years in isolation in the so-called adjustment center, Jarvis has become a first class writer--see his earlier book FINDING FREEDOM– and a Buddhist practitioner.” The publisher writes: “The powerful story of Masters' childhood leading up to his conviction, and his subsequent spiritual transformation while behind bars, this memoir has been endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: ‘His memoir is a plea for reform, for a common humanity, and I share his hope that this moving story will redouble our efforts to make sure that every child matters.’”
Carnegie Mellon University Press has published a new edition of Chuck Kinder’s HONEYMOONERS: A CAUTIONARY TALE, Kinder’s chronicle of two writers pursuing fame and freedom in the Bay Area during the 1970s. The new edition includes an introduction by author and screenplay writer Jay McInerney and two previously unprinted sections. Kinder, who has taught English at the University of Pittsburgh since 1980 and directs Pitt’s writing program, was educated at West Virginia University and Stanford University. At Stanford, Kinder became close friends with fellow student Raymond Carver, who eventually earned notoriety and critical acclaim as a short story writer and poet. Their relationship — a saga of friendship, ambition and debauchery — inspired HONEYMOONERS. Kinder's former student Michael Chabon based Grady Tripp, a character in Chabon’s 1995 novel WONDER BOYS on Kinder. HONEYMOONERS: A CAUTIONARY TALE is available through Carnegie Mellon University Press at http://www.cmu.edu/universitypress/. Copies may be ordered through the Press' distributor, Cornell University Press Services, at 1-800-666-2214.
ON THE WEB
See an interview with Neva Bryan about her novel ST. PETER’S MONSTERS at http://www.channels.com/episodes/show/6345442/Cover-to-Cover-108-Neva-Bryan
Barbara Crooker says she has a poem “alas...still as current as it was when I wrote it– ” at
http://www.switched-ongutenberg.org/current/crooker.htm” Her website is at http:// www.barbaracrooker.com , and her book, LINE DANCE, winner of the 2009
Paterson Award for Literary Excellence, is at www.word-press.com/crooker_linedance.html
There’s a new issue of INTERNET REVIEW OF BOOKS at http://internetreviewofbooks.com/
PAPERBACK BOOK SWAP!
My new Fave for getting books is Paper Back Swap , a low cost (postage only) way to get rid of old books and get new ones!
NATIONAL WRITERS UNION ON GOOGLE SETTLEMENT
National Writers Union position on the Google-Authors Guild settlement says, in part:
“Weighing the costs against the benefits to writers, I recommend, therefore, that it be the National Writers Union's official position that we are not opposed to our members and other authors participating in the settlement, since it makes no legal concession to Google with respect to copyright law, despite the defendant's typical claim in a settlement not to have done anything wrong. At the same time, it authorizes Google to use copyrighted works on a non-exclusive basis. While this frees our members to sell their works elsewhere, we should have no illusion about the difficulty of competing with Google in the marketplace.”
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
“What Doesn’t Kill You...” http://www.press53.com/whatdoesntkillyou.html
I’ve been reporting for some time in this spot that Ingrid Hughes writes: “My union newspaper says, ‘Forget Amazon.com, which has engaged in union busting on two continents. Try Powell's Books (http://www.powells.com)- the largest unionized bookstore in America....An alternative way to reach their site is from http://www.powellsunion.com; 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 .
WHERE TO FIND BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS NEWSLETTER
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 http://powellsbooks.com. More good sources for used and out-of-print books are Advanced Book Exchange at http://www.abebooks.com and All Book Stores at http://www.allbookstores.com/ . 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 CampusBooks.com , 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 http://www.paperspine.com . But my new Fave is Paper Back Swap , a low cost (postage only) way to get rid of books and get new ones!
RESPONSES TO THIS NEWSLETTER
Please send responses and suggestions directly to Meredith Sue Willis at MeredithSueWillis@gmail.com. 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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