Thursday, July 30, 2009

Francis Bacon, Michelangelo, and Pearl the Possum

We're heading off for vacation soon, and I've put my vacation responder on, and we already started, yesterday! We went to the Metropolitan Museum, and walked back through the park with thunder threatening, a continuing sticky hot miserable day.

But the museum was cool, in all senses, and the subway and NJ Transit have air conditioning. Actually, in the 20 years since we've been living in the 'burbs, the NY Subways have improved their service a lot.

But I digress. We started with a Francis Bacon retrospective, which Andy really hated—saying all the people looked like open-mouthed lampreys, which is hard to disagree with. Open mouths and screaming popes. I was fascinated, but find Bacon very detatched, and a kind of silence surroundihg his screams. Does that make sense? The crucified sides of beef or maybe lovers have always seemed a little histrionic to me, but I was moved by the portraits, isolated twisted people with demoiselle d'avignon heads centered in the middle of nowhere. Also in the earlier paintings, the white and yellow lines suggesting boxes and prisons around the figures—anyhow, I was fascinated, Andy repelled.

I just read Wikipedia's piece on Bacon which sketches out a lot of what I wanted to know: sickly childhood, descendant of older half brother of Francis Bacon the Elizabethan scholar, self-made furniture designer and interior decorator. “Gentleman's companion.” Rough trade boyfriends (with a wiki link to “rough trade,” which apparently has more to do with class than style of lovemaking—who knew).

We tried out the new American Wing cafeteria, then stepped over to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens exhibit, which was a funny contrast to Bacon, although both were born in Ireland. Saint-Gaudens has some nice work, especially his relief portraits, and it's always fun to learn something about the makers of public monuments, but this exhibit was too aligned with the robber barons for my taste-- allthough I don't suppose there'd be my beloved museum without their rapacious collecting.

We saw more, a seventies and eighties exhibit with some fun Cindy Sherman stuff and others, and at the very end, “Michelangelo's earliest Painting.” What a trip! It was a Torment of St. Anthony recently cleaned in stunning clarity of colors, beautiful little piece, monsters and rocks-- a thirteen year old genius's work, so bright and happy and thirteen year oldly enthusiasm for the ugly! See the detail of some tormenters above.

And then! At home, rain! and on the back porch, sleeping between the porch screen and the outsdie banister from before the porch was screened-- a small opossum! I called her (just guessing) Little Pearl the Possum, and she opened her long pink mouth and hissed and then went back to sleep. Slept thorugh storm, me reading, and finally left when Andy sprayed her with water. Something very sweet about that rough prickly furred side rising up and down in sleep. So relaxed.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Humid Summer Day-- Newsletter # 121

And now it’s a really sticky gray day that feels like we're swimming through a thin jelly, damp, temperature and humidity the same in and out.

But I'm finally getting a few days with no big demands-- trying to nail down the Melisandre story, cut grass, weed in the garden, sewing projects, got off a newsletter. Silent hot stuff that feels lazy, not because I'm inactive, but mentally less focused? Not pushing myself? I'm just following where my inclinations go. Take a walk or a run. sew up the jeans that were too loose. Play with the parakeet. The quiet like a (damp) cotton blanket surrounds me.

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers #121

July 25, 2009

For a Free Email Subscription to Books for Readers, send a blank email to

Recent MSW News:

My story “The Roy Critchfield Scandals” appears in We All Live Downstream: Writings About Mountaintop Removal, edited by Jason Howard and published by Motes Books.
My short-short "My Most Embarrassing" is now online at Two Hawks Quarterly

A month after summer solstice, so the angle of light is more or less the same as late May. In other words, for all you optimists out there, please lower your spirits! The days are getting shorter! But the books are still long and rich. I want to begin this newsletter with one of the latest books from Hamilton Stone Editions, a small literary press with which I am associated. This new novel SOME PLACE QUITE UNKNOWN is by the well-known and well-published Jane Lazarre, whose work includes BEYOND THE WHITENESS OF WHITENESS, THE MOTHER KNOT and much more. For some of her awards and reviews, visit her website at

SOME PLACE QUITE UNKNOWN is a novel that slips around the border of memoir, but creates a full fictional world. It uses shifting points of view and a story-within-the story that– to Lazarre’s great credit– enhances the singleness of purpose and the intensity of the search for a lost mother. The book has a deep sensuality that fills the reader’s horizon the way menstrual cramps or nursing a baby can fill a woman’s.

As I was reading, I compared and contrasted it in my mind with Anaïs Nin’s diaries, but Lazarre’s book has none of the coyness and preciousness that marred Nin’s work for me. Maybe I’m just older and understand more, but I think Lazarre’s explorations are more powerful and honest. The story line is clear: the main character fears that she may be suicidal; she enters therapy; she explores where she has been and inquires into the mystery of her mother’s suicide. She explores this mystery in many ways, some obvious and some surprising: she narrates dreams, interviews people of the past generation, talks with people of her son’s generation. She looks at photographs, reads letters, mulls over phrases from her mother’s letters, has conversations with her friends and her sister. She eats meals, she goes down to the sea on both coasts. She remembers and speculates.

Mainly, Lazarre does all these things extremely well, with a straightforwardness that is totally convincing. This isn’t to say that the writing strategies are naive, on the contrary. But she moves forward with such concentration and intensity that as a reader I felt enthralled by her conviction. Near the end, quotations from Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolf begin to crop up, and that connection to women literary figures who committed suicide helps open the work out into the larger world in a fruitful and powerful way. In a different vein, Lazarre also creates wonderful portraits of people, especially my favorite, mean old Aunt Lucille, the older sister of the lost mother. Lucille appears in various contexts, from various angles, gradually sharpening into a clear, vivid, presence.

This is not reading for the beach; rather, it is reading for sounding the depths.

One more note: I picked up in a used bookstore LEON TROTSKY by Irving Howe, an excellent short introduction to Trotsky's ideas and place in history with a minimum of biography. Howe is sympathetic and admiring, but deeply critical of Trotsky and all the old Bolsheviks for not seeing in time that their policies might lead to a monstrous catastrophe like Stalinism. Howe’s point is that however brilliant and serious and brave Trotsky was– fascinating, literary, and indefatigable in working toward social change– he did not move anywhere near fast enough against the evil potential in Bolshevism that was realized, whereas the promise of Bolshevism never was.

In related reading, I came across an article in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS by Timothy Snyder called “Holocaust: The Ignored Legacy” (The New York Review of Books, Volume 56, Number 12 , July 16, 2009. P.14 - 16). Snyder asserts that the real center of the Holocaust was not western Europe and the German Jews, not even Auschwitz, which was a work camp as well as an extermination camp and thus had survivors to tell the story. The real killing center, he says, was Eastern Europe, specifically Belarus and the Ukraine, both ravaged by Stalin in the thirties then by the Nazis in the forties with planned starvation and famine and simple shooting and clubbing to death as well as more technologically advanced methods of killing.

-- Meredith Sue Willis


Jeffrey Sokolow writes to say he has “just finished RED ORCHESTRA: THE STORY OF THE BERLIN UNDERGROUND AND THE CIRCLE OF FRIENDS WHO RESISTED HITLER by Anne Nelson, a new book on "Die Rote Kapelle," The Red Orchestra, which was the name the Nazis gave the (mostly unconnected) circles of anti-fascist militants and Soviet-led espionage agents (the two categories were not mutually exclusive) who performed truly heroic deeds during the darkest days of the Third Reich. As the subtitle indicates, it focuses mostly on the resistance angle. Another highly recommended book with the same focus is RESISTING HITLER: MILDRED HARNACK AND THE RED ORCHESTRA by Shareen Blair Brysac, a biography of Mildred Fish-Harnack, the only American woman to be executed in Nazi Germany under Hitler's personal orders. For the fascinating espionage side of the story, two books are recommended: THE RED ORCHESTRA by Gilles Perrault and THE GREAT GAME: MEMOIRS OF THE SPY HITLER COULDN'T SILENCE by Leopold Trepper. Trepper's story is mind-blowing and why it hasn't been made into a movie, I can't imagine (well, maybe we're not ready yet for a film whose hero is a Soviet Jewish anti-Stalinist spy chief). Although these last two books are out of print, they both are well worth finding. I haven't read THE RED ORCHESTRA by V. E. Tarrant, but a glance at the table of contents suggests it might be interesting. Not recommended is CODEWORD DIREKTOR by Heinz Hohne, which relies too much on tendentious Nazi materials that slander the participants in the resistance as sex deviants and traitors to Germany (not that there's anything wrong with that).”

Reamy Jansen suggests “Mary Elizabeth Braddon's LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET, one of the Victorian sensation novels of the 1860's, great Oxford paperback. Sterling introduction and excellent notes. A great read. She wrote 85 novels, mostly dreck probably. However, this one in terrific.”


Linda Marshall has sent us a special recommendation of GRINGOLANDIA by Lyn Miller-Lachmann. She says, “I want to tell everyone I know to read this amazing book. Once I began GRINGOLANDIA (Curbstone Press, 2009), I couldn’t put it down. A generally slow reader with numerous obligations and interests that keep me from reading, I stopped everything to read this book. It’s an amazing and historically accurate novel about Chile under the Pinochet regime – and the effects of the Pinochet regime on the population. The main characters, Daniel, Marcelo/Nino (his father), Tina (Daniel’s sister) and Courtney (Daniel’s girlfriend) are vivid, believable and haunting. Told from multiple points of view and written in a way that is suitable for Young Adult readers, GRINGOLANDIA is a must-read for any adult, high school or college student concerned about the horrors of torture and political repression.

“GRINGOLANDIA begins in Santiago, Chile in 1980, when Daniel awakens to see his father being beaten, tortured and hauled away: Daniel, his mother and sister flee Chile and find refuge in Madison, Wisconsin. More than five years later, Marcelo is released, but he is partially paralyzed, the result of a savage beating in prison. Daniel is horrified to see what has happened to his father and wonders if he’ll ever have the same relationship with him that he had before:

‘I nod, but inside my down coat, I’m shaking. Sure, [Mamá] told me about Papá being tortured, and it was on the leaflets, too. But that was just words. This guy is really messed up. Maybe he isn’t Papá. Maybe this is some kind of sick joke, some way of torturing the family, killing Papá and sending this crippled guy to take his place.’

“Daniel’s struggle to reclaim that relationship, and his conflict with his girlfriend, Courtney, who wants to start a human rights newspaper using Marcelo’s story, is the focus of the novel. GRINGOLANDIA concludes in 1991. Pinochet is no longer in power and the country is healing. Marcelo, now living in his own home in Santiago, has a parrot that he has rescued from a cruel neighbor.

‘The beauty of it all filled the hole inside, where torturers had tried to beat out or burn away every emotion except the fear and rage that they expected would eventually consume me.

‘I’m healing, too,’ I said. ‘Just give me time.’”

Linda also praises Lyn Miller-Lachmann's DIRT CHEAP as a “very good, fast-paced eco-thriller.”


Iris Schwartz is the guest poet at
She also has a poem on Jee Leong Koh's blog:

Laren Stover’s story “The Last Geronimo” is the lead fiction story on GUERNICA, a magazine of art & politics described as "a magazine of art & politics." GUERNICA called out by Esquire’s blog as a Great Online Literary Magazine. "The Last Geronimo" is the funny and sad story of Geronimo the Third and a pet monkey named Colette. See

Allan Appel’s new play THE EXCOMMUNICATION OF MRS. EATON, a theological love story, is based on the record of the excommunication trial of the wife of New Haven's founder in 1645. The play takes place in New Haven at the church on the Green. For more information, see
Barry Wildorf’s historical novel, DAWN OF DARKNESS, is now available as an ebook from SCRIBD ( or just Google the title. DAWN OF DARKNESS is a fictional account of two very courageous women who heroically resisted the Church's efforts to destroy classical knowledge, and with it women's traditional roles as teachers and healers, during the dying days of the Roman Empire. Since, as we know, the Church ultimately won, condemning nearly everything written by classical/pagans as heresy, and burned most of their books thereby bringing us the Dark Ages, we have to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Hence, DAWN OF DARKNESS is both a cautionary tale and a work of fiction.
Mary Lucille DeBerry’s new book of poems is BERTHA BUTCHER'S COAT.
Sandy Vrana's work was selected as a finalist in the 2009 Patricia Dobler Poetry Contest sponsored by the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing of Carlow University, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Barbara Crooker: "Secret Garden" is in the Saw Palm Review: (you have to scroll down the page)."After the Operation, I Find I Like Sleeping Alone" and "Walking in the Orchard with Katha Pollitt" are in the new issue of Summerset Review:

And her book LINE DANCE won the 2009 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence!
ANDERBO story “The Right Passengers” by Waqar Ahmed was honored as one of the 2009 BEST OF THE WEB stories! See This 2008 story now appears in Dzanc Books' BEST OF THE WEB 2009.


An interesting source of seld-editing advice is at plus a site for screnwriters at
Samples of Bob Heman’s Information Pages:
New issue of Internet Review of Books is up at
Garrison Keillor read a poem from Barbara Crooker’s LINE DANCE "The VCCA Fellows Visit the Holiness Baptist Church" on The Writer's Almanac on Sunday, June 28th. Archived here:
An interview with Brenda Seabrooke:


ANDERBO SEEKS NOVELIST: is seeking to post ONE unpublished entire novel on its website by December 1, 2009 for at least the following six months. We will look at the FIRST 30 PAGES (up to 10,000 words) of your e-manuscript and decide within 60 days if we want to see more. THERE IS NO READING FEE and all literary rights will remain with the author. No novel submissions will be accepted after September 1st. We guarantee to choose and use one manuscript, and to pay an honorarium of $300 to the chosen author upon publication. For technical guidelines and address see

MOTIF is an anthology series published annually by MotesBooks of Louisville, Ky. VOLUME 1: WRITING BY EAR featured 116 writers, including Patty Griffin, Silas House, Buddy & Julie Miller, Maurice Manning, Evie Shockley, Neela Vaswani, Frank X Walker and Pamela Duncan. Each volume in the MOTIF series focuses on a theme – for Volume 2 the theme is CHANCE. Submissions may be poems, short stories, song lyrics, short memoirs, essays, letters, creative nonfiction, or other forms. Combinations of forms are acceptable up to the limits described: Prose must be under 3,000 words. Send no more than three poems/lyrics. All genres will be considered as long as “chance” is referenced or illuminated in the works. Submissions may address the theme either directly or indirectly, but “chance” should figure significantly and artfully in the piece. For full guidelines, go to Submission period closes September 1, 2009.
The Anthology of Appalachian Writers is a publication that encourages a long-established tradition of storytelling, love of language, and creative expression associated broadly with the area of the country known as Appalachia. Though the principal mission of the anthology is to provide a venue for publication of new writers, it also provides a collection of literature and scholarship that contributes to an understanding and appreciation for the region. Poetry, fiction, memoir, heritage writers, as well as new voices appear in each annual volume of the anthology. To submit any original, unpublished work of fiction or poetry for consideration by the editors, send an electronic copy, along with the information below, to Dr. S. Bailey Shurbutt, . All submissions must be in the submission format below.

Title of Submission:___________________________________________________________
E-mail:____________________ Phone:_____________________
Brief Biography (limit 100 words):________________________________________________

Deadline for Submissions: October 15, 2009.
Resilience Multimedia, publisher of the widely praised book, “THINK OUTSIDE THE CELL: AN ENTREPRENEUR’S GUIDE FOR THE INCARCERATED AND FORMERLY INCARCERATED,” is sponsoring its second writing contest for people who are or were in prison, and their loved ones. The books will be widely distributed and widely read.. Contestants may write personal stories about one or more of these topics:
* Reentering society after incarceration
* Waiting for loved ones to return home from prison
* Prison marriages and relationships
Three winners will be chosen for each topic and will receive these prizes:
* 1st Place: $300
* 2nd Place: $150
* 3rd Place: $ 75
Stories that do not win cash prizes will still be eligible for inclusion in the series.
For contest rules and more information, email or call 877-267-2303.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New York Lifts Me Up.

All righty then! It's a week since I last wrote in this blog, and the last time I was looking forward to-- this moment, which is the moment when teaching is over for the summer. It has been a productive but stressful six weeks or so, and now that part is over.

I've spent much of the morning doing a couple of last things for Novel II, which ended last night., and also email.

I really enjoyed New York on my dash across Fourteenth street where a Shoemania was having a half price sale, yes, that's right everything included Dansko and I think even Mephisto shoes. I didn't need shoes, but bought some little tan skimmer style Crocs. I really wished for more time and money. And maybe less company in the store. It was a real peak shopping experience: elbows and piles of shoe boxes!

New York was full of skin, all these young women and girl showing legs that were sometimes stubby but always in short shirts and lovely bosoms undulating over little slippy dresses.. I tried to remember what it was like to feel the necessity of wearing mini skirts. I was never comfortable in them, but I had no idea of an alternative, and was determined to show I was free, although what I usually did was spend a lot of time making sure I wasn't exposing myself as I sat in the subway.

Last night, though, I was wearing black cotton, my cheap maxi broom skirt from Wal-mart (bought in West Virginia! That's one of my principles: I only shop at Wal-mart when I'm in West Virginia with my mother who always shops at Walmart.) The skirt was very comfortable and had that vague reference to style that makes me feel like I'm having fun. Not that I need props when I'm in New York: New York just lifts me up.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Downstream of Time

Wednesday morning, and I just finished the last papers for tonight’s class and I have to prepare the class a little later, but I am at this moment tremulous with hope– hope that this high pressure, stressful period is actually ending. Andy has moved his office, although we still have a lot of his stuff in the back hall waiting to go to the basement. My mom has been visited, and now I’m thinking of bringing her up while Joel is here. I’ve got all three books in–more work to come on them, but the Big Pushes are over. The weather is pleasant , and while teaching isn’t over, with less going on, I can enjoy it.

In the garden I’ve been layering newsprint and salt hay, and for some reason that makes the garden seem far less weedy than when I’ve done the actual veggie patches first: maybe it’s that I can sit, kneel comfortably and weed a small patch at a time. Or maybe it’s just that the weather is so perfect, dry air and sun, heat moderate.

So what's wrong today? Surely something. My left wrist hurts from some twist I gave it. But I trust that will resolve itself eventually.

I have been thinking a lot since Joel graduated from college and plunged into his life, getting engaged, moving to the West Coast– about what is different now, on this side of life. There’s the loss of biological optimism--the youthful belief that however upset, bereft you are, the future hasn’t come yet. Young people who lose this often kill themselves.

Well, over on this side, the future is here, no longer imminent but immanent– and what does that imply? You aren’t at the pinnacle you thought you were climbing. Does that mean you've I failed? Is this an edifying question? Probably not. Most global pronouncements like that are unedifying. You're less special, more one of the crowd than you had thought, and I find this comforting: I'm not as lonely as I was as a girl.

Other changes in me:I have come to admire the practical people. I was seduced for forty years or so by rhetoric, by visions of Big Change. But now I find myself impressed by people who have actually made concrete things happen– the ones who have ideals but focus on doing something here and now. Who cut deals. It makes me a little sad: not my admiration, but the loss of perfect righteousness.

Of course single payer health care is the only rational health care system! But won’t more people be healthier with a better system, even if still a ridiculously irrational system?

I picked my first little pepper, a mucho nacho jalapeno. Beans are coming in. Cukes and tomatoes forming!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Lady Bites Laptop

July 1!

A new month! Have you ever felt like the lady to the left? Computers and the new world of technology are in so many ways just like old ways of doing things, and fascinating, and helpful-- and also totally foreign and frustrating. Anyhow, when I'm not obsessed with a new software program (I'm teaching myself some Desktop Publishing ) , or delighted to hear from a totaly stranger (a French webmaster has asked to translate some of my exercises for writers into French-- no money, but quite flattering)-- I am furious at the machine for its stupidities and demands for attention to things I never meant to pay attention to! The image, by the way, is from Fotolia, where you can buy for a buck or two royalty free images of things like children that you ordinarily have to be very careful about putting up on the 'net without heavy-duty permissions. Anyhow, the lady-biting-laptop cost a dollar, for a low resolution version. I didn't really need her, but I was experimenting.