Friday, February 25, 2011

From ignorance to slightly less ignorance

One of the things about the various demonstrations, revolutions, brutal crackdowns, and civila wars going on in the so-called Middle East is that I am finally emerging a tiny bit from the muck of absolute ignorance: I've begun to be able to separate not just the geographical countries from one another, but also the types of government, a sense of who is Sunni and who is Shiite, where there is a large technologically savvy population, who is less strict about women's veiling, etc. etc. We have been-- okay, I have been-- woefully ignorant, and now I'm beginning to distinguish a few things.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Some interesting things online: Silas House's op-ed piece in the New York Times about why he sat-in at the governor's office about mountain top removal. Also an eyewitness account of the worst night in Tahrir Square in Cairo, when the Thugs Came by filmmaker Tom Hurvitz, another of our cohort who sat in at Columbia University in 1968.

It is a superb moment in many ways: possible one of those times when many fires are lit at once: the Mountaintop Removal Sit ins in Kentucky; the demos versus taking away the right to collective bargaining in Wisconsin; Cairo; Bahrain. Some of it going very badly, some seeming hopeless, but a moment like the fires lit on the mountaintops in 1848, in 1968.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Books for Readers # 139 February 10, 2011

See this in color, with pictures and live links-- on my website here!

I got a Kindle for my holiday gift. For months I spent time agonizing over corporate misdeeds and which device had access to the most books. In the end, I was sold by the lightness and visual neutrality of its little gray self. It pops into my bag with almost no added weight. I can lie in bed and hold it over my head as I read (try that with a three pound hard cover novel). On the train, if I don't feel like using glasses, I can make the type larger. There are no colors, no music (although you can have the text read aloud if you really want it). I've now got a whole blog with my ongoing commentary of this new kind of reading and how the digital revolution feels to a literary person. It's called Literature and the Web .

The thing I want to focus on in this issue, what is absolutely stunning to me, is that I am gradually downloading for FREE all my favorite Victorians and more. A couple of nights ago I got the free versions of all the major Jane Austen novels. I've got all of George Eliot except Theophrastus Such. I have all six Trollope Palliser novels (that would be Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, and The Duke's Children.) and my favorite E.M. Forster (Howard's End and A Passage to India.). Indeed, a huge per centage of literature that is out of copyright is available to download free on the Kindle (or any other electronic reader).

Some of you are going to say, Well I have all of the Victorians in my local library, or I have an omnibus edition of George Eliot sitting on my shelf right now. To which I say, Great, so do I, but can you carry it all with you on the commuter train in to New York? In your suitcase for vacation?

The first book I read on the device– finished, not started– was Trollope's The Prime Minister. My first full book (also free) was P.G. Wodehouse's My Man Jeeves, short stories, followed by Right Ho, Jeeves, (novel), both as light as meringues, and just as delightful: eh what old chum?

The first (and so far only) book I purchased for money was a George R.R. Martin sword and sorcery, A FEAST FOR CROWS. I am now contemplating purchasing an early Cormac McCarthy, one of his novels set in Knoxville, Tennessee back when he was an Appalachian writer, before the border trilogy and BLOOD MERIDIAN (see review of BLOOD MERIDIAN below). You can, of course, buy many current books too for the Kindle, but they aren't cheap, and you can't pass them on. So far, I'd rather buy a used book or trade on at

So, here are a couple of official responses to old books, as experienced on the flat gray screen of the Kindle:

THE PRIME MINISTER, while not my favorite Trollope, is, as always with Uncle Tony, an interesting look at human beings in a different time and place. This novel is even more loosely connected with Parliament that the Phineas Finn books– this one is about how a good man can be a bad politician, and it is also about the vicissitudes of marriage. In particular, pride destroys lives here: Plantagenet Palliser, now Duke of Omnium, never wanted to be Prime Minister and now that he is and it's time to step down– he doesn't want to give it up. Not because he thrives on the role, but because of pride. It's his ever lively wife Glencora (Lady Glen, the Duchess), who should have been the Prime Minister. The other story line is about Emily Wharton Lopez, who makes a disastrous marriage and is too proud either to get down in the dirt where her handsome husband is striving to succeed (a man with no antecedents– probably Jewish or Portuguese or both) and far too proud to leave him. She is a really miserable case: blind and stupid pride insisting on marrying who she wants, in a time and place where she is by custom and in fact ignorant of who she is marrying– and then determined to embrace her suffering. I was hoping she'd remain a widow and live as a monument to her own stupidity, but Trollope likes his old English squires too much not to let them win in the end.

So it's essentially an unpleasant story, a study of marriage and money and the emotional underpinnings of parliamentary politics– the general themes of the whole series, particularly highlighted in this one. Glencora Palliser, the Duchess, continues to delight, but she is, au fond, pretty much without fond, i.e. shallow. She was wonderful in Can You Forgive Her, when she was young, with her fondness for impropriety.

All the Palliser novels play with outsiders: Trollope's Irish (Phineas Finn) and Jews (probably the redoubtable Mrs. Max now Finn) are worthy in as far as they remake themselves into English gentlemen and women. Politically, I far prefer George Eliot, who shares a lot of the general attitude– that English gentility is superior to most other ways of being– but she goes much farther in her efforts to understand the other. In DANIEL DERONDA, for example, the quintessential, heroic gentleman is not only Jewish, but becomes a Zionist activist.

Finally, A PASSAGE TO INDIA, E.M. Forster's highly praised last novel, was a reread for me, but as I started reading, I realized that I remembered just about nothing. I think I must have read it as a student, probably in a Great Novels of the Western Tradition context. I remembered the scene in the mosque at the beginning; I remembered the unpleasantness (and importance to the book) of the Malabar caves, and I knew Mrs. Moore died but had no memory at all of the last third of the book (the temple part). It was like reading a completely new book. Also, I was mistakenly looking for the famous Forster phrase "only connect," having associated it with Mrs. Moore when all along it was from HOWARD's END. It's as if all that was left of my previous reading was Mrs. Moore. I remember her not as more important than she was– because her compassion and her religious devolution are indeed central to the book– but I didn't remember what happened to the other people. I didn't remember that Dr. Aziz was actually the main character, the changes he went through, and mainly, I didn't remember the actual political study of the awfulness of the racist colonial British in India.

This really reminds us of the wonder of books that are works of art: that they are different to us at different times, that they are really experiences rather than objects, and this perhaps is why, for me, there is very little attachment to the book as object: it is the experience and re-experience that matters.

-- Meredith Sue Willis


A blood-soaked, epic tale of the West as a not-so glorious look at Americana and our history, not to mention the essence of humanity. The imagery is certainly off-putting, to understate it quite a bit. Between the blood, death, rape, pedophilia, the squeamish should think twice before picking this up. Even as a suitably desensitized Generation Y-er (thanks, T.V.!), the book was extraordinarily disturbing. Seriously; BLOOD MERIDIAN is probably the single most brutal piece of art (literary, theatrical, musical or otherwise). However, in the end, it was absolutely worth it.

The plot is not necessarily the essence of BLOOD MERIDIAN. It is a tale of an unnamed boy who travels the West in the 1800s with a group of scalpers, attacking and killing any Native Americans they can get their hands on. Along the way, he meets many characters, all of whom, it seems, partake in the gory episodes the book recounts. The plot mainly serves as a vehicle for presenting violence, which is what the book is truly about.

Now, no one is saying this book is accurate. I'm not referring to the historical nature of the novel (of which there is plenty: many of the characters are based of real people, and most of the events are tied to true historical ones); I'm referring to McCarthy's view of human nature, which is the essence of the book. His extremely disturbing view of human nature– and his gory description of the violence in which humans partake– is quite negative, only enhanced by one of the more prominent characters in the book who can only be described as satanic-like. But McCarthy's view is vivid and important, none the less. He makes you question the good in the world by focusing so much on the violence.

This book is a must-read, if you can take the blood, gore, and rape. A true American classic. You may not agree with McCarthy's ultimate points regarding human nature and violence, but he certainly raises a multitude of important questions. On top of all this, as usual, McCarthy's command of American English is superb and wonderful, his descriptions are unmatched, and the language is generally a joy to read.


While this book is certainly a "baseball book," and will be most appreciated by baseball fans, it should be appreciated by any sports fan in general. Lewis takes a deep look at the Oakland A's of the early 2000s and how they were able to win so many games with so little money.

Lewis mixes up what is effectively basic economics with sports excitement. He jumps between describing how the A's general manager (GM), Billy Beane, is able to exploit market inefficiencies in how players are evaluated to the excitement of a GM trying to pull a coup in a trade to the big moments in a baseball game. Lewis's writing style is blunt and to the point, but generally very gripping. He also ties in the historic aspects of how these new evaluation tools were created very nicely.

The message of the book gets strung out a little bit long. Yes, we get it, baseball teams were not properly evaluating on base percentage. We don't need a 20th story about this it understand it. For two-thirds of the book, this is the message, and it gets tedious. Eventually, towards the end, he starts to address pitchers' market inefficiencies, but this certainly gets the short end of Lewis's stick, probably because it was not the Oakland A's priority. However, overall, Lewis's book is fascinating, if for no other reason than how dumb most GMs in Major League Baseball seem to be.


Taina is a strong, curious girl, but sometimes life can be very difficult. She is young and inexperienced in the ways of life. Her parents are from Puerto Rico, the Spanish-speaking island in the Caribbean Sea. They live in New York City and their lives are a mixture of both PR culture and that of the mainland US where they now live.

Chapter by chapter, Taina deals with the complications of growing up: negotiating the ups and downs of her relationships with friends at school, struggling with the confusing feelings of a first love, Eddie the Cutie ("Is he looking at me?" "Does he like me?")--while all along being plagued by her parent's fretful marriage, her mother's seemingly unreasonable demands, and her father's absence.

The author, Jo Anne Valle, has a wonderful way of getting inside the heads of young people—gathering insights from her own experiences, as well as from the pupils she knew, when she was teaching school. Ms Valle holds a Masters Degree in Philosophy, and has Taina discovering philosophical principles that help her find her way.


COLIN PRESTON ROCKED AND ROLLED by "Bert Murray" is a novel that does a wonderful job of capturing the voices and lives of a certain time and place. The use of music– both music contemporary to the characters and Colin's beloved Beatles (already, of course, at the time of the novel, classic)– works especially well. Instead of using words, Colin, when in the grip of a strong emotion, puts on an appropriate song. Overall, the compactness of the story and the ease with which one identifies with Colin and his situation create an inevitability about the events that has an almost tragic quality as well as a strong structure. I felt I experienced it all with Colin, and it was a pleasure to read.


The current, 28th anniversary, issue of MÖBIUS is, as always, a rich cornucopia of poems by people like Jane Stuart, Laura Boss, John McKernan, Thaddeus Rutkowski, Simon Perchik, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Marge Piercy, Rita Dove, Daniela Gioseffi– and of course the editor-in-chief and publisher, Juanita Torrence-Thompson. One interesting surprise among many was a group of Sonia Sanchez's striking haiku ("i see you Nubia/walking your Mississippi walk/God in your hands.") but also "Where I'm From" by fifteen year old Sydney-Elise Washington ("I am from pots overflowing with cachupa and pans of beef roti.") For information about buying the magazine, see Below or go to the website at


Dolly Withrow writes in response to Joel Weinberger's review of Peter Singer's ANIMAL LIBERATION in the last issue ( "With respect to our treatment of animals, it wouldn't take much to transform me into a vegetarian--not a vegan, if I have the terms correctly defined. I don't believe Elsie, the famous cow, would mind if I had a drink of her milk of a pat of her butter--that is, as long as she could be treated with kindness. My husband and I now live with one 26-pound cat (he's on a diet) and three dogs--all strays. I've written about Freddie Flealoader, but the other two have not as yet found fame."

One Writer's Experience with CreateSpace

Bert Murray on Working with CreateSpace: "Createspace...was a very good experience. They let you call them on the phone. You are assigned a team to work with and you can call a hundred times until all your questions are answered. They are polite, friendly and have an answer for all your questions. I've worked for a few fortune 500 publishing companies selling academic books to schools and public libraries during my business career. I guess I was expecting a self publishing company to be difficult to work with. I was wrong. Createspace is easy to work with and they do a great job helping you make your book. In my opinion, they are an option anyone who is considering self publishing should consider."


If You Are in Oakland, California, drop by Diesel Books on Sunday, February 13 at 3:00 PM for a celebration of Alan Senauke's book: THE BODHISATTVA'S EMBRACE —DISPATCHES FROM ENGAGED BUDDHISM'S FRONT LINES. The address is 5433 College Avenue at Kales (near Manila) in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland. Alan will read from and discuss his new collection of essays from Clear View Press. For information contact: or look at the Clear View Blog:

Oritte Bendory has an essay in the brand new Simon & Schuster anthology LIVE AND LET LOVE a collection of essays written by women whose lives have been transformed by love. The book was featured on GOOD MORNING AMERICA on Feb 3, 2011.

MÖBIUS, THE POETRY MAGAZINE is available for $15 each copy, which covers shipping & handling. Mail orders to MOBIUS, THE POETRY MAGAZINE, P.O. BOX 671058, Flushing, NY 11367-1058. Print order form at: fill out and mail.

Friday, February 04, 2011


I am not a political commentator, although I am a political person. Today I've been online looking and listening to Aljazeera English and the BBC and some of the Meretz blog posts about how it all looks from Jerusalem. Andy and I watched Anderson Cooper and some others late last night, and picked up some of the frantic quality of t.v. news which we so rarely watch.

We discussed where we get our news at my writers' group last night, and I took my usual position that if you watch t.v. you get scared: better NPR, WBAI, newspapers, or the little cooler images as seen on the computer. Some defended MSNBC and to a lesser degree CNN, but after listening to Anderson Cooper (from an "undisclosed location") getting all excited about the way the thugs had been treating journalists (but I should add, Nicholas Kristoff was on voiceover a little later, and he was full of portentious feelings about the meaning of attacking journalists too-- to move them away from something planned for tomorrow?)

But now it is tomorrow, and the massive peaceful demonstration appears to have been supported, or at least protected, by the Egyptian army. Perhaps the journalists were too full of the importance of themmselves with their hints at a new Tianamen Square. So far today (and it's night in Cairo) the pro-Mubarak hired thugs seem to be gone.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Ice Storm Here, Demonstrating There!

It's a strange moment, with the powerful weather continuing to cause problems across the Midwest and northeast in this country, sleet and ice outside my windows, and in Egypt, at this moment, they're waiting for a speech from the present president whose resignation hundreds of thousands are demanding. And that's what the world is: white lonely cold here, spritzing semi-solid moisture, and there, great masses crying for change. I think they call it freedom.