Sunday, January 31, 2010

Books for Readers # 128

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers #128

February 1, 2010

MSW Home
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Featured This Issue:
Jeffrey Sokolow on the Fiftieth Anniversary
of the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins and more


Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil,
and David L. Richmond leave the Woolworth store after
the first sit-in on February 1, 1960.

If you want to link to something in this newsletter, you should use the permanent link here rather than this page, which changes each issue.

February 1st is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Greensboro, NC Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins. I am honored to give you the main article here on books about the Civil Rights movement, especially SNCC, guest edited by Jeffrey Sokolow .


Meredith Sue Willis

JEFFREY SOKOLOW ON THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY
OF THE GREENSBORO LUNCH COUNTER SIT-INS:
FEBRUARY 1 - APRIL 15, 1960–2010 AND
REMEMBERING THE STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE

As Tom Hayden notes early on in his recently published book, THE LONG SIXTIES: FROM 1960 TO BARACK OBAMA (Paradigm, 2009), this year we will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of every event that occurred in the 1960s. A good place to start might be February 1st, which marks the date on which four black students sat down at a segregated “whites only” lunch counter at a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked to be served a cup of coffee, thereby sparking the sit-in movement that swept the south in the weeks and months that followed. Like a stone thrown into still water, that act set off ripples that resulted in the greatest mass democratic popular movement in American history.

A second significant date is April 15th, which will mark the 50th anniversary of a conference convened by Miss Ella Baker (then on the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC]-- See photo below right) at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. This meeting resulted in the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was to lead mass action campaigns to end racial segregation and conduct voter registration campaigns to enfranchise black citizens in the Deep South. This small group of dedicated young men and women, together with the “local people” they found and empowered to lead themselves, were the “point of the spear” that finally broke the back of state-sanctioned apartheid and terrorism in the Deep South. SNCC workers wanted “more than a hamburger”; ultimately, they wanted a radical democratic restructuring of American society to benefit people on the bottom of the existing order.

Confronting unrelenting segregationist resistance and KKK terrorism, betrayal by its putative allies in the liberal Democratic Party establishment, and resulting burnout and radicalization, SNCC lasted for only six years, ending in a cul-de-sac of sectarian ultra-radicalism that alienated it from its community base and finally destroyed the organization. But the courageous path that SNCC field workers blazed is a story every American who values freedom should honor and remember.

SNCC is the subject of an important new book, THE SHADOWS OF YOUTH: THE REMARKABLE JOURNEY OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS GENERATION by historian Andrew B. Lewis (Hill & Wang, 2009). Lewis draws on published and oral histories to paint a moving narrative history detailing the rise, fall, and afterlife of this important organization. Although Lewis omits some important events (e.g., the controversy over Mary King and Casey Hayden's "kind of memo" on the role of women in SNCC and H. Rap Brown's 2002 murder conviction for killing a black sheriff's deputy in Atlanta), his well-researched and well-written book tells a gripping story and shows both the strengths and shortcomings of key figures. An extensive bibliography leads to many other sources.

Two collections of oral histories shed light on the 1960s freedom movement in the South: CHILDREN OF THE MOVEMENT by John Blake (Lawrence Hill, 2004) and GENERATION ON FIRE: VOICES OF PROTEST FROM THE 1960s by Jeff Kisseloff (University Press of Kentucky, 2007). Blake's profile of the children of movement figures offers insights into the complex psychology of such individuals as James Farmer, Bob Moses, and Julian Bond. Kisseloff's collection, which spans the gamut of 1960s activism, includes moving oral histories by two incredibly brave SNCC workers, Bernard Lafayette and Bob Zellner. The latter's remarkable autobiography, THE WRONG SIDE OF MURDER CREEK: A WHITE SOUTHERNER IN THE FREEDOM MOVEMENT by Bob Zellner and Constance Curry (New South Books, 2008), gives a powerful account and is highly recommended.

Black women played an important role in SNCC and in the freedom movement. SOON WE WILL NOT CRY: THE LIBERATION OF RUBY DORIS SMITH ROBINSON by Cynthia Griggs Fleming (Rowman & Littlefield, 1998) tells the story of an exceptionally courageous and forceful young woman who joined the freedom movement as a teenager, became executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and died of cancer at a very young age (25). Fleming examines issues of sexual politics in great depth and offers perceptive comments on the divergent perspectives of black and white women in SNCC. Her book is based on both published sources and extensive oral interviews with Ruby Doris Smith Robinson's movement colleagues.

A substantial proportion of the white northern students who joined the movement were Jews (such as Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered with James Chaney in Mississippi). In 1962, at the age of 19, Danny Lyon, a white Jewish kid from Chicago, went south with a camera to work with SNCC. Understanding the importance of documenting the struggle and the role of images in framing public perception, SNCC Executive Secretary James Forman put him to work as a photographer. Lyon’s oversized book, MEMORIES OF THE SOUTHERN CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT (University of North Carolina Press, 1992), combines his iconic photographs with commentary, including on-the-spot reports, which document the incredible heroism and humanity of the SNCC staff and the "local people" they worked with in the Deep South. Like no other book on the movement I've seen, Lyon's book gives the reader a visceral sense of being there in the moment.

In no southern state was the movement faced with more vicious terrorism, Klan bombings, economic and physical intimidation, and police-state tactics than in Mississippi. In a massively documented narrative history, LOCAL PEOPLE: THE STRUGGLE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS IN MISSISSIPPI (University of Illinois Press, 1994), John Dittmer draws on published materials, archives, oral histories, personal interviews, and reunion conference proceedings to tell the story of the courageous "outside agitators" who came to the Magnolia State to bring about a second Reconstruction and of the heroic "local people" they worked with. Dittmer grounds what happened in the sixties in what went before, starting with the return of black soldiers from World War II and the organizing campaigns they attempted. Aspects of the story have been told elsewhere, either in chapters in books or in memoirs of participants; Dittmer draws on all these materials and many others to paint a rich and multifaceted picture of the movement, nor does he shrink from examining its inner dynamics, conflicting interests and personalities, and weaknesses as well as its moral strength. A work of prodigious scholarship, Dittmer's narrative makes for exciting reading (it probably goes faster if you skip the footnotes, but then you miss out on a lot if you do).

Dittmer’s book should be read in tandem with I'VE GOT THE LIGHT OF FREEDOM: THE ORGANIZING TRADITION AND THE MISSISSIPPI FREEDOM STRUGGLE by Charles M. Payne (University of California Press, 1995). This important analytic history shows how SNCC’s grassroots community organizing approach was based on the pioneering work of the preceding generation of black organizers in rural communities. Payne’s material is drawn largely from oral interviews with movement participants, and his findings challenge many widely held myths. The sectors of the community that responded most readily to SNCC workers were the older generation and the younger; in the middle-aged group, women were much more likely than men to join the movement. Payne traces the tradition of community organizing in rural black communities, especially the role of women in the black church, and shows how SNCC’s idea of grassroots democratic bottoms-up organizing was in synch with this organizing tradition. Payne shows how SNCC’s turn away from grassroots organizing after 1966 and its subsequent emphasis on ultra-radical rhetoric rather than on base-building led to demoralization, demobilization, and finally the victory of the more moderate and establishment-oriented section of the black community over the radicalized poor.

The literature cited in these books is vast. I’ve made sketchy comments on those I’m familiar with.

-- Jeffrey Sokolow

MEMOIRS OF PARTICIPANTS

  • THE MAKING OF BLACK REVOLUTIONARIES by James Forman (University of Washington Press [reprint], 1997). Autobiography by SNCC’s Executive Secretary, who died in 2005. Capsule bio: http://www.stanford.edu/~ccarson/articles/left_2.htm.
  • WALKING WITH THE WIND: A MEMOIR OF THE MOVEMENT by John Lewis with Michael D'Orso (Harvest Books, 1999). Lewis was an early Chairman of SNCC. He is currently a member of Congress from Georgia.
  • READY FOR REVOLUTION: THE LIFE AND STRUGGLES OF STOKELY CARMICHAEL (KWAME TURE) by Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell (Scribner, 2003). Although I’m not a fan of his later politics, I must say this massive, posthumously published autobiography is gracefully written and reflects a gracious spirit.
  • THE RIVER OF NO RETURN: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A BLACK MILITANT AND THE LIFE AND DEATH OF SNCC by Cleveland Sellers with Robert Terrell (Morrow, 1973)
  • BAREFOOTIN': LIFE LESSONS FROM THE ROAD TO FREEDOM by Unita Blackwell with JoAnne Pritchard Morris (Crown, 2006).
  • MISSISSIPPI HARMONY: MEMOIRS OF A FREEDOM FIGHTER by Winson Hudson and Constance Curry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
  • FREEDOM SONG: A PERSONAL STORY OF THE 1960S CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT by Mary King (William Morrow & Co, 1987). King was a white member of SNCC and co-author with Casey Hayden of “a kind of memo” that helped spark the Second Wave feminist movement of the 1960s.

BIOGRAPHIES

  • THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE: THE LIFE OF FANNIE LOU HAMER by Kay Mills (Dutton, 1993) and FOR FREEDOM'S SAKE: THE LIFE OF FANNIE LOU HAMER by Chana Kai Lee (University of Illinois Press, 1999). Mrs. Hamer was one of the most remarkable grassroots “local people” whose leadership SNCC encouraged.
  • ELLA BAKER: FREEDOM BOUND by Joanne Grant (Wiley, 1998) and ELLA BAKER AND THE BLACK FREEDOM MOVEMENT: A RADICAL DEMOCRATIC VISION by Barbara Ransby (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).The founding mother of SNCC, Ms. Baker was an important figure in building grassroots democratic freedom organizations for decades.
  • AND GENTLY HE SHALL LEAD THEM: ROBERT PARRIS MOSES AND CIVIL RIGHTS IN MISSISSIPPI by Eric Burner (New York University Press, 1992). Bob Moses was legendary. Trained as a mathematics teacher, today he works in Mississippi to build math literacy as a path to college admission. See: RADICAL EQUATIONS: CIVIL RIGHTS FROM MISSISSIPPI TO THE ALGEBRA PROJECT by Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb (Beacon Press, 2001).
  • DIANE NASH: THE FIRE OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: A BIOGRAPHY by Lisa Mullins (Barnhardt & Ashe, 2007). Diane Nash was a founding member of SNCC and an important leader in that organization.

HISTORIES

  • IN STRUGGLE: SNCC AND THE BLACK AWAKENING OF THE 1960s by Clayborne Carson (Harvard University Press, 1981). The first history of SNCC and still one of the best books on the organization from start to finish.
  • MANY MINDS, ONE HEART: SNCC'S DREAM FOR A NEW AMERICA by Wesley C. Hogan (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)
  • THE STUDENT NONVIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE: THE GROWTH OF RADICALISM IN A CIVIL RIGHTS ORGANIZATION by Emily Stoper (Carlson, 1989)
  • THE CHILDREN by David Halberstam (Random House, 1998)
  • FREEDOM RIDERS: 1961 AND THE STRUGGLE FOR RACIAL JUSTICE by Raymond Arsenault (Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • WE ARE NOT AFRAID: THE STORY OF GOODMAN, SCHWERNER, AND CHANEY AND THE CIVIL RIGHTS CAMPAIGN FOR MISSISSIPPI by Seth Cagin & Philip Dray (Macmillan, 1988)

CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS

  • A CIRCLE OF TRUST: REMEMBERING SNCC by edited by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg (Rutgers University Press, 1998)

FILM

  • FREEDOM SONG is a 2000 made-for-TV movie that portrays SNCC organizers and the "local people" they worked with in Mississippi in a realistic fashion. It's based on oral histories by participants, and the characters, while renamed, clearly represent Bob Moses, Chuck McDew, Bob Zellner, and other SNCC staff in Mississippi. It's a bit cheesy at times, but it's much closer to the truth than Hollywood productions like MISSISSIPPI BURNING, which glorified the role of the FBI and trivialized that of the movement. Look for it at the local library or at Netflix. It's well worth showing your children. Freedom is a constant struggle.
  • The documentary series EYES ON THE PRIZE: AMERICA'S CIVIL RIGHTS YEARS 1954–1965 has been reissued in DVD. If you have not seen it before on public television, don’t miss it. Make sure your local public library has copies.

MUSIC

  • The southern freedom movement was a singing movement, and the freedom songs sung at mass meetings gave people the courage to persevere. Two CD collections capture these meetings: VOICES OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: BLACK AMERICAN FREEDOM SONGS 1960–1966 (Smithsonian Folkways, 1997) and SING FOR FREEDOM: THE STORY OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT THROUGH ITS SONGS (Smithsonian Folkways, 1990). “Carry it on.” “Lift every voice and sing.


NOW! UPCOMING! EVENTS! WEBSITES!

A conference will be held in Raleigh, North Carolina, April 15-18, 2010, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of SNCC. Details will be posted here: http://www.sncc50thanniversary.org/. See also http://crmvet.org/ for information on civil rights movement veterans then and now.


The Civil Rights Movement Veterans website (http://crmvet.org) is a goldmine for information. Includes personal reflections, text of panel discussions, documents, archival resources, links to other sites, historical timelines, bibliographies, etc. "Go and study."


Traveling exhibit– “Freedom's Sisters" is a traveling exhibit highlighting the role of women in the struggle for equality. Panels tell the stories of Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and 13 other women leaders of the civil rights movement. the exhibit is now in Memphis and will travel to Detroit, Birmingham, Chicago, Dallas and Baltimore during the year. Details available here: http://www.sites.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibits/freedoms_sisters/main.htm.

Note: I have a minor quibble with Payne’s book. In a footnote attached to what I thought was a thoroughly innocuous quotation from Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School, about empowering poor people to voice their own concerns and define their needs for themselves, Payne claims that “[t]his is almost a perfect restatement of the mass-line theory of the Chinese Communist party, as described by William Hinton in FANSHEN: A DOCUMENTARY OF REVOLUTION IN A CHINESE VILLAGE.” Since, to my knowledge, Highlander workshop facilitators never incited sharecroppers to kill their landlords nor did they require workshop participants to memorize and recite the sayings of Chairman Horton, for example, this conclusion seems to me entirely gratuitous. (No doubt SDS leaders in 1967 would have compared the same organizing approach to what they imagined to be that of “the Guatemalan guerillas,” with equal lack of justification.) Payne is on surer ground when he talks about the organizing tradition in Mississippi than he is when he attempts comparisons to what he imagines to have been the practice of the Chinese Maoists. IMHO.

IN MEMORIAM: RECENT LOSSES

Late January 2010 saw the deaths of J.D. Salinger , who wrote The Catcher in the Rye, and Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States. Personally, I'll especially miss knowing that Professor Zinn is in the world with us.

READER RESPONSE TO NUMBER 127

Sondra Olsen writes: "I think you had trouble with Olive Kitteridge because it's a story collection. I haven't read the Johnson book, but it seems to me that any worthwhile novel will pull you along faster. As the author of a book of linked stories I can attest that you stop when you've finished writing one story and then start up again slowly, even though you're mindful that you should be speeding the reader along. It's not a completely fair comparison."


REMINDER OF SOME GOOD BOOKS AND HAITI

Phyllis Moore writes, “I bought a copy of BLINDNESS at the Gulf Shores library book sale and read it and THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy last week. Both novels made me even more aware of what it must be like in Haiti with no public services, no law enforcers, no food, water, doctors, meds, etc.”
She also draws out attention to the 1998 press release on Saramago winning the Nobel Prize: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1998/press.html

PAMELA ERENS ON TURGENEV’S FATHERS AND SONS

Pamela Erens says:"After spending time with Tolstoy and Dostoyevky, Turgenev seems so compact, so pellucid; no wonder Flaubert admired him. Fathers and Sons is both a portrait of a dynamic, even violent time in Russian history (the late 1850s, as feudalism was giving way to a more Western-style economic system) and a universal tale of aimless young men and women and the grownups who don't understand them. In the end it's really about the way we all shuttle between a conviction that life is meaningless and a conviction that even what is transient can be meaningful."

ONLINE

There’s a new issue up of the Internet Review of Books at http://internetreviewofbooks.com

WORKSHOPS

Anndee Hochman has several workshops coming up this year--both short-term and longer, both near and far. Take a look at her website at http://www.anndeehochman.com/events.shtml

NEWS

Peter Brown’s latest children’s book is THE PURPLE KANGAROO. The book written by comedian/actor Michael Ian Black, and illustrated by author/illustrator/juggler Peter Brown. Get book event information at http://www.peterbrownstudio.com/pb-booktour/pb-booktour.html
Marc Harshman has work in the latest issue of La Petite Zine at http://www.lapetitezine.org/Marc.Harshman.htm.
Laura Thompson was awarded Le Cadre d'Or 2010 for her book of poems MOSAIC OF LOVE in the world poetry category, in Paris, France. See http://www.cadredor.org .

Marlen S. Bodden’s novel THE WEDDING GIFT (about a woman given as a gift in slave times) has just been published. See http://www.amazon.com/Wedding-Gift-Marlen-Suyapa-Bodden/dp/1439255830 .

Black Lawrence Press announces DUTCH TREATMENT by D. E. Fredd a collection of three short stories, winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition. The stories are about humans trying to understand themselves and each other, specifically across cultural borders, against the backdrop of war, and within the confines of marriage. The book is available from the Black Lawrence Press website at http://blacklawrence.com/fredd.html
There’s a new short short by Carole Rosenthal in Citron Review at http://thecitronreview.wordpress.com/2009/12/10/smile/

The American Association of University Women, NYC Branch, has recently named JUANITA TORRENCE-THOMPSON one of 10 women who “Make A Difference.” They said Torrence-Thompson “broke down barriers” and was especially “dedicated to Black History and to Diversity.” Juanita is a poet, writer, instructor, actress and Editor-in-Chief/Publisher of MOBIUS, THE POETRY MAGAZINE.
Burt Kimmelman’s new book of poems, AS IF FREE (Talisman House, Publishers), is now available from Amazon and SPD / Small Press Distribution. Jerome Rothenberg says, “Make no mistake about it: Burt Kimmelman appears here – & not for the first time – as a successor to the lineage of William Carlos Williams & George Oppen (to name but two), no less so for being a master of that lineage worn proudly.”
Spuyten Duyvil Announces Lynda Schor's SEDUCTION, STORIES OF LOVE AND ART– “a new and rare collection of tales of extraordinary madness.” Purchase a pre-publication copy and support Spuyten Duyvil's endeavors to bring extraordinary innovative literature and poetry to the reading public. Pre-publication copies are $16 + $2.50 postage and handling per copy. Please make checks out to: TNT Printworks and send order to TNT Printworks, 42 St. Johns Pl. Gdn Apt., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

New Restaurant; Close Harmonies

January 30, 2010

It’s Saturday morning, and I’m sad the book is done, also relieved, looking out at a still and extremely cold day. The book was Baltasar and Blimunda, so far my favorite of Saramago's, along with Blindness, but B & B is so much younger a.k.a. hopeful in its attitudes. Historical, magical realistic, politically astute, with working class characters.

We went out last night to the new restaurant just opening, Hat City Kitchen. The food was really good, the menu limited so far, but it's home style and Louisiana, full bar, very attractive, and last night anyhow mostly patronized by people from South Orange and Maplewood! There's to be music often, and here's the part that is unusual and really interesting: it is not owned by individuals, but rather by HANDS (Housing and Neighborhood Development Services) in Orange.

The concept is that HANDS has been buying properties and investing in "The Valley" in Orange, the small working class and formerly industrial (hat factories, for example) town north of South Orange and south of West Orange. They are renting spaces to artists, and now opening this moderately upscale or at least, meant-to-be trendy restaurant with music in the bar. I wonder if it will work out?

I’ve got an invitation to participate in a literary reading in another of the HANDS locations, the Luna theater. It seems to me that this is at least possibly part of the spilloover work of our South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race : that we may see white people re-integrating 75% African-American Orange-- for arts and entertainment, but perhaps also the good but cheap housing stock. Regional integration strategy? And what about super-white Millburn? When does that become a location of choice for People of Color?


Close Harmonies: Reading, Music, and Dancing: 1983 in New York City.
MSW on left, then Maggie Anderson, and on far right, Marc Harshman.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Technology rampant

Once again, late at night, I take a break (from re-reading Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda, in English of course), go upstairs, check my email, and end up involved in some technical wrangle.
Tonight I decided to install WordPress which I have in mind is somehow a better way to blog than this Blogger, maybe purer in its open sourceness? I've been meaning to start a real blog in January-- not just an edited journal, which is what's on my web page blog has been, and somehow I've never really gotten into using this Blogger although it works just fine. Anyhow, I spent an hour or so with Startlogic my overly technical web host and fooling with WordPress itself and got it set up, but of course all the energy went to setting it up. And even now, writing on my little Acer in order to focus on words instead of all the neat software I can use, I start thinking Oh, I suppose I could go there from this computer too right?
(And I did it, but refrained from actually writing there–refrained as in more not writing).
A whole word of dashboards and views and page sources and commands that do all kinds of things but of course my body gets tight, and it's all eyes. And then I remember I'm old almost and WTF, why am I trying to master this instead of reading leatherbound books in a woody study with french doors open to a lawn and birdsong?

Friday, January 22, 2010

MOMA revisited


Well, a day away from the computer, and it takes me over an hour to do the various tasks associated with email. I did a little more than that-- a homework from the online class, but mostly email.

I got so behind because I spent yesterday in New York, including a visit to the Museum of Modern Art. I hadn’t been there since it reopened, which I now learn was in fall 2004-- a little over five years! I've been going a lot to the Metropolitan, where I have a membership, and also doing more museum visits when I'm away from home, like the Sterling Clark in Williamstown, and of course San Francisco Museums, the winter the MOMA reopened, we went to Italy. The truth is, I don't go to museums nearly as much as I think of the art there.

Anyhow, at the MOMA, I especially like the way everything circles around the central space. Right now, there's a huge whale skeleton, real but with paint on it, hanging on the second floor and you see it from below and later from above. This is by Gabriel Orozco, along with a lot of other things. I liked his work (but I still can’t get clear his family line– was the great contemporary of Siquieros and Rivera and all of them his grandfather? My lazy-- emphasis on the lazy-- google search isn't answering my question. Anyhow, he does a lot of different things, worth looking at more.

I was less enamored of the very crowded Tim Burton exhibit– I like his movie work pretty well, but didn’t find the sketches particularly exciting, or maybe just didn’t like the crowds.

Also just wandered around enjoying the space and visiting old friends– Matisse’s big red room and Chagall’s floating goatheads and lovers and oh all the incredible stuff there in MOMA. Blows you away, really. When I first went, they still have Guernica in your face.

Monet’s water lilies are in a not-huge gallery on the second or third floor next to a café-- almost perfunctory, as if the new curators are saying, Okay, tourists, you came to see the water lilies, here they are now get over it.

Even less pride of place to Christina’s World, also on a lower floor in a hall–easy to find, but dimly lit and just there. A message-- disdain for the tourists? A statement about how rapidly modern art isn't modern anymore?

The water lilies seemed smaller than they used to be. Partly the old room was hushed, and I remember it as spacious and lavender or blue, with a small peek out to the street, and they so enormous just two of the big paneled paintings. Partly I was so much younger and so much one of the breathless ones: Oh! The actual Water lilies! Themselves! Here they are!

Otherwise yesterday was bright cold New York, Ingrid down at a café on Second Avenue and tenth, then to Carol’s for writers’ group, and we had a really animated discussion (centered on Joan’s story) about couples and sex after seventy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Books for Readers # 127

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers #127

January 13, 2010

MSW Home
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Featured Contents This Issue:
Olive Kitteridge and Wrongfully Mine

Shelley Ettinger and I Have Words over Joyce Carol Oates

Lots of News!


Coming Up: a special on Civil rights books

(February 1st is the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro, NC
Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins)

If you want to link to something in this newsletter, you should use the permanent link here rather than this page, which changes each issue.

A few weeks ago, I serendipitously read two extremely different books. First I read the highly recommended 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout (see her photo left), and then I read Isadore Johnson’s WRONGFULLY MINE, purchased on the street in New York-- my first toe dip into Urban Fiction. (See his photo below right).

I’m going to be saying more about WRONGFULLY MINE than about OLIVE KITTERIDGE, because it’s the book that excited me. OLIVE KITTERIDGE is a collection of short stories set in a small town in Maine, and each story includes at least a mention of a woman named Olive Kitteridge, a teacher whose relationships with her husband and only son are committed, stoic, and far from successful. The collection works nicely to create a whole impression, and I’m pleased that a book about a small town and often hidden lives won a big prize. I wish Elizabeth Strout well, I hopes she writes many more, and I hope people keep reading her work because those people are likely to give my work a try too. So please understand that I’m glad I read OLIVE KITTERIDGE. I admire the book.

But– and you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?– why did I have no trouble laying OK down whereas I read WRONGFULLY MINE about as rapidly as I could.

WRONGFULLY MINE is a two-volume novel that I bought on Thirty Fourth Street in NYC from the author himself. It is something called “Urban Fiction,” a genre that actually goes back to the sixties and writers like Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines (who died violently in 1974). These men wrote gritty stories of the streets that were in at least some cases commercially successful. More recent urban fiction has been published by hip hop/rap presses or by extremely small family run presses.

WRONGFULLY MINE is in two attractive volumes with a lot of nonstandard features in the book block: the spacing between lines is large, and the paragraphs are not indented. The missing indentations in particular irritate the English teacher in me, and while the spelling is okay, there are instances of odd misuses of words in the narrative (As opposed to within quotations where, of course, anything goes in the effort to capture human speech). The novel is larded with explicit sex (and casual sexism) and plenty of violent deaths, mostly over drug turf. The drugs are treated primarily as an economic product, and the selling turns out to be hard work. The dealers’ own drug of choice is alcohol.

That’s description, but it doesn’t explain why I would read a chapter/story of OLIVE KITTERIDGE, say to myself, That is really well done, or even, I’m moved by that, and then lay the book down. Whereas I had trouble putting WRONGFULLY MINE down. I would pick it up over other books, including OLIVE. Was it the novelty? Was it because I’d met the author and was interested as so many readers are in the connection between a human being and that human being’s imaginative work? Was it prurient interest over the somewhat repetitive sex and the hot guns? Am I just being contrary? I tend to think mostly that it was the energy, the sheer momentum. It made OLIVE KITTERIDGE seem too finished, too quietly complete. WRONGFULLY MINE jumps off the page with pell-mell enthusiasm for its characters and their sadly limited but wildly explosive lives.

Isadore Johnson is clearly ambivalent about his central character, Hassan “Burn” Campbell. Burn gets out of prison and immediately stirs up everything, commanding loyalty and respect from his “peeps,” as in “my people,” but setting off waves of gunfire, revenge killings, and in the end– and this is where the ambivalence comes in– he slips off into the night with a handful of diamonds to get a new start. His best friends are dead or in one case in a vegetative state. The destruction and waste of human life are enormous, and yet there is this attraction to a spirit, perhaps a satanic spirit, that keeps on going and thwarts a system stacked against young African-Ameican men. Burn is a splendid, dangerous, heroically thuggish character, more of a force than a person. Johnson clearly understands that Burn is a negative influence on the world– but he also appreciates the way Burn plays the straight world and survives– perhaps even thrives.

What is moving and even tender is glimpses of connections among the young drug dealers. There is nothing to admire in the bumbling federal task force that gets shot up and fails to capture Burn, nor is there much worthy in the women who include one bitch goddess power figure of a D.A. and a lot of whiny mothers-of-the-men’s-children and even more booty-call sex toys. Johnson tries to do a little more with Burn’s girlfriend, and one of the sex toys turns out to be a reasonably talented singer, but the only strikingly admirable human behavior is the loyalty among the young men. They have the kind of ties that are created in all one-generation masculine cultures like soldiers at war, or the boys raised separate from their mothers and sisters to become radical jihadists– or, of course, urban gangster culture.

The book offers a lot of insight into "the game," which is the hard work of selling drugs. There is an lack of understanding of anything beyond the immediate friendship group and enemies. No one seems to understand that if you kill this guy's brother, he'll want to kill yours and you too. In the structure of the book, any moment of calm–the young men watching t. v., talking on the phone to girlfriends, having sex (usually at the same time in the same apartment as the other young men are having sex), eating some fast food, joking with their "lil homies" – this almost always trumpets a violent scene with a lot of blood and bullets.

There is also a lot of ugly consumerism: Spending money is what the young men do when they aren’t working or having sex. Burn and his top lieutenant travel to resorts and sit by pools and have drinks or comment on the incredible luxury of the hotel. Lavish is good. Benzes are good. Diamonds are good, flawless bodies are good.

I don’t mean to praise the book more than it deserves, but I love to be swept away by a book, and sometimes it is the genre novels that sweep best. I am thinking a lot about the power of genre novels to do that-- to carry me on fictional rides through the rapids and leave me breathless.

Meredith Sue Willis


SHELLEY ETTINGER AND I HAVE WORDS OVER JOYCE CAROL OATES

Shelley Ettinger had several blog posts at the end of 2009 on her admirable “Read Red” blog about Joyce Carol Oates. I hope you’ll read all of the posts at:

Among other things, she writes, “At [Joyce Carol Oates’s] worst, when her fiction is at its slightest, it is slight, I think, only in comparison to her usual very high standard. It's never really bad compared to the vast dreck-loads of bad fiction foisted upon the reading public in this country....At its best, which it is impossibly often– I mean, come on, the greatest sluggers in baseball only make base hits a minority of their at-bats, most of the time striking out, so why should writers, who, I'd argue, rely on much harder to use body parts, be expected to hit one out of the ballpark every time they step up to the plate (tee hee who ever thought a sports metaphor would find its way onto this blog?), and yet she comes so close impossibly often– at its best, the work of Joyce Carol Oates is stark raving brilliant."

Shelley says she had been meaning to write about Oates for a while, but “got an oomph to do so when my friend the novelist and teacher Meredith Sue Willis wrote something about Oates, or at any rate one of Oates' books, in her newsletter BOOKS FOR READERS (Issue #123 at http://www.meredithsuewillis.com/bfrarchive121-125.html#123 then scroll down). She had just read BECAUSE IT IS BITTER AND BECAUSE IT IS MY HEART (which I have not read), and she'd also just read a novel by the bestseller list denizen Jodi Picoult, and she said that both writers have a ‘sense of entitlement that leads them to dip into places they haven't bothered to imagine fully.’ Well! Of all things! First I was flabbergasted at the suggestion that Oates even writes in the same universe as Picoult. More important, I couldn't imagine reading a JCO book that felt only partially imagined. I can't fault [MSW] for her specific critique since I haven't read this novel and who knows, perhaps BECAUSE IT IS BITTER is one of Oates' worst--but I can say that if there's one thing Joyce Carol Oates can do and usually does, it's to fully imagine the worlds she creates.”

There’s a lot more, and I repeat my recommendation of the blog posts on Oates, especially about her having been taken less seriously than a man of her accomplishments would have been. A lot of my complaint above about BECAUSE IT IS BITTER was about (and I don’t think I said this explicitly) how well Oates did her white characters compared to her black ones, who did not feel fully imagined to me. But on Shelley’s recommendations, I ran out and got BLONDE and I can say unequivocally that it is an excellent and fascinating book. It is enormous, and with large, large portions of it incredibly brilliant, a few passages pumped up with emotion, but over all a really powerful portrait of Norma Jeane a.k.a Marilyn Monroe and of her life and times– a perfect blend of a subject with JCO’s talent. She really nails Hollywood and nineteen fifties womanhood, catches MM’s wit and her fantasy life, her near-split personalities. It’s a big book with big themes.

Next, I want to follow Shelley’s suggestion to read JCO’s Love Canal book, THE FALLS.

PAMELA ERENS ON TURGENEV’S FATHERS AND SONS

Pamela Erens Pamela says: "After spending time with Tolstoy and Dostoyevky, Turgenev seems so compact, so pellucid... no wonder Flaubert admired him. Fathers and Sons is both a portrait of a dynamic, even violent time in Russian history (the late 1850s, as feudalism was giving...more After spending time with Tolstoy and Dostoyevky, Turgenev seems so compact, so pellucid... no wonder Flaubert admired him. Fathers and Sons is both a portrait of a dynamic, even violent time in Russian history (the late 1850s, as feudalism was giving way to a more Western-style economic system) and a universal tale of aimless young men and women and the grownups who don't understand them. In the end it's really about the way we all shuttle between a conviction that life is meaningless and a conviction that even what is transient can be meaningful.(less) "

MORE BOOKS

Thulani Davis recommends the followng on Buddhism: “For a wonderful read on who is doing all the thinking and how the ego dominates daily life, I recommend ZEN MIND, BEGINNER'S MINDby Shunryu Suzuki. For a wonderful look at how trouble is an opening, I recommend WHEN THINGS FALL APART or secondarily START WHERE YOU ARE by Pema Chodron. And for practice, I am bound to recommend you experience the teaching in person as it is passed "one mind to one mind."

NEWS

Let me get the sad news over with first: Paperspine.com, the netflix for books, has closed its doors. See the final blog post at http://paperspineblog.com/2009/12/12/a-final-thank-you-to-our-members/#comment-539 . It turns out it was a garage operation, but very smoothly done, and couldn’t weather the economic downturn. Try booksfree.com (not really free of course) if you like the idea of a paid lending library for current paperbacks.
Marlen S. Bodden’s novel THE WEDDING GIFT (about a woman given as a gift in slave times) has just been published. See http://www.amazon.com/Wedding-Gift-Marlen-Suyapa-Bodden/dp/1439255830 .
Albert Meglin’s latest series of one-act plays has just been published: see http://stageplaystheatre.com/publish.htm . Also check the development/reading series page for when there will be a reading of some of his work at http://www.stageplaystheatre.com/reading_series.htm.
There’s a new short short by Carole Rosenthal in Citron Review at http://thecitronreview.wordpress.com/2009/12/10/smile/

Barbara Crooker’s latest poem is online at http://www.bhutantoday.net/happiness.htm

The American Association of University Women, NYC Branch, has recently named JUANITA TORRENCE-THOMPSON one of 10 women who “Make A Difference.” They said Torrence-Thompson “broke down barriers” and was especially “dedicated to Black History and to Diversity.” Juanita is a poet, writer, instructor, actress and Editor-in-Chief/Publisher of MOBIUS, THE POETRY MAGAZINE.
Burt Kimmelman’s new book of poems, AS IF FREE (Talisman House, Publishers), is now available from Amazon and SPD / Small Press Distribution. Jerome Rothenberg says, “Make no mistake about it: Burt Kimmelman appears here – & not for the first time – as a successor to the lineage of William Carlos Williams & George Oppen (to name but two), no less so for being a master of that lineage worn proudly.”
Shawn Dray Robinson http://www.shawndray.com has a new children’s picture book THE SKY IS THE LIMIT dedicated to our children who are living and those who are losing their lives every second. THE SKY IS THE LIMIT is available January 2010. Call 973.373.1377or e-mail dps@shawndray.com.
Spuyten Duyvil Announces the pre-publication Sale of Lynda Schor's SEDUCTION, STORIES OF LOVE AND ART– “a new and rare collection of tales of extraordinary madness.” Purchase a pre-publication copy and support Spuyten Duyvil's endeavors to bring extraordinary innovative literature and poetry to the reading public. Pre-publication copies are $16 + $2.50 postage and handling per copy. Please make checks out to: TNT Printworks and send order to TNT Printworks, 42 St. Johns Pl. Gdn Apt., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217.

SPRING 2010 BOOKS FROM MARSH HAWK PRESS...

... include: Phillip Lopate, AT THE END OF THE DAY ; Sandy McIntosh, ERNESTA, IN THE STYLE OF THE FLAMENCO; Eileen R. Tabios, THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS & NEW (1998-2010); and Neil de la Flor, ALMOST DOROTHY. See their website at http://www.marshhawkpress.org.

AT STANFORD U.

Hilton Obenzinger does a series of conversations with writers at Stanford. The videos for the more recent ones can be viewed by the public at http://itunes.stanford.edu Once on the Stanford iTunes site, click “Arts and Humanities” and then scroll to “Featured Contributors” and look for the “How I Write” icon. These are writers of all sorts, including most recently Phil Taubman, former journalist and editor for the NY Times. Hilton is writing “How We Write: The Varieties of Writing Experience” based on about 50 of these conversations in addition to panel discussions and what he has learned from students and faculty directly.


NEW MUSIC

Redjeb Jordania’s Sonata d'Amore for duo violins can be seen and heard at http://www.Youtube.com. Once you’re there, go to the search window and search for Redjeb or RedjebJ or Redjeb Jordania. A CD (and an MP3 download) of some of his chamber music is now available from Amazon.com.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When Times are Bad, Looking Homeward...

January 19, 2008

Bad news for health care and a progressive legislative agenda: the Republicans took the special Senate election in Massachusetts. Americans express their frustration almost always by Throwing The Bums out. Some comfort: a beautiful old photo by Charlie Cowger of a snowy day on Palmer's hill in Shinnston.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Appalachian Coal Miner's Dinner

Tonight is my third (!) fund raiser Appalachian Coal Miner's dinner-- this one a fund raiser for the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race-- and I've got eight people coming, plus Andy and me and my mother, who won't sit at the table. It's legal moonshine and a miniature coal car on the coffee table, Songs of the Coalfields in the cd player, lots of Appalachian books on the side tables. I know what I'm going to wear, and the cooking is pretty much under control. All pig, mostly: pork chops, mustard greens cooked in bacon, beans cooked with bacon, cole slaw, potatoes (fake fried), cornbread, and biscuits. Oh, and pies! apple from Costco, berry pie, and vinegar pie!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

On not being articulate

People assume that if you are a writer, you are articulate, but I have never been very fluent with words– that is, with precise words, long words, vocabulary words. I have always tended to expressive language, word pictures, a surprising word that, if I'm lucky, conveys what I want it to. People I think of as British-trained in universities and high style will write pages and fluent pages with the the perfect word, the great word, the most precise word. I love it when I know those words, and there was a time in my life when I kept elaborate lists of words as I learned them, but when I am precise and especially when I use big words, I am almost always wandering exuberantly in what feels like someone else’s arena.

I also have odd losses, of fairly common words, possibly psychological blanks as once a few years back I lost AUTISM for a week or two.

Technology is exacerbating the problem because I'm developing some new means of expression-- I can make web pages with pictures, for example, and I think some of my struggles with computers and html and now desk top publishing are cutting into my vocabulary developing spaces.