Monday, May 23, 2011

Books for Readers #142

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers # 142

May 15, 2011

I want to begin this issue with praise for an old novel in a new edition from Montemayor Press: LEAH by Seymour Epstein. First published in 1964, Epstein uses his point of view woman character, Leah, as a point for creating a rich portrait of a particular time and place. I perhaps most loved the details about young-to-middle aged New Yorkers eating in Automats, going to Broadway and off-Broadway shows, New York bars, subways, elevateds. It is the New York I saw the first time I visited, as a young teenager. It was a place when you could rent a decent apartment on an office manager's salary and eat most of your meals out. A place where craftspeople like Leah's wonderfully portrayed father Max, a furrier, were also intellectuals. This is a particularly Jewish postwar New York City, and while many of its touches on the experiences of gay people and black people feel hesitant now, the book as a whole is not dated, but rather a window into a particular past.

In this context, Leah's desire for a life in love, and her dilemma over having had a series of lovers, is sad, but it is also precisely the trap set for gentlewomen at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century– that not only their typical role but their calling is to find true love, then be fulfilled in house keeping, husband supporting, and motherhood. That Leah herself knows she's in a trap is played out delicately. It is only after she gets a little respect for her stolid mother (who, miraculously, turns out to have some talents of her own!)– and gets a little perspective on her adored father – that she is able to take on a love commitment.

The book has the dark gold color of an incandescent lamp: women wear furs, men wear hats, artists are considered heroes, women see themselves as receivers of confidence and neediness. In the end, Epstein chooses the mode of classical comedy– both Leah and her father compromise their principles (or else perhaps finally mature) and take mates.

Leah was old fashioned in all the right satisfying ways, and by contrast, I also read a thoroughly modern young adult novel called THE END: FIVE QUEER KIDS SAVE THE WORLD by Nora Olsen. This is one I wish had been a series– it's got these five terrific heros with semi-super powers, mostly gay or bisexual girls, and the only boy is 5,000 years old. They are good characters, overseen by some slapstick gods and goddesses who are causing very serious problems for human beings– like a killing insanity that makes people rip each other apart for no reason. The magic/super powers part is set up very carefully and focuses less on the poof of magic and more on how the kids learn mastery of it. The final quarter speeds up and takes on the sharp, simplified outlines of cartoons, but this is, in spite of people being dismembered and possibly dying of rabies, a good humored and uplifting novel.

Meanwhile, back at the Kindle, I've been enjoying myself immensely as well. First, I discovered a clearing house for the free borrowing of Kindle books. The problem with Kindle (one problem) is that once you buy a book, it's yours, but you can only lend it to a friend by lending the Kindle itself and thus your entire collection of e-books. Amazon is now, like Barnes & Noble, allowing some very limited borrowing. The new bottleneck is that the conventional (DUMB) publishers are not allowing borrowing. There are some opportunities, however, to borrow some popular books– once. That is, you are borrowing from an individual, who is only allowed to lend once. To learn more, take a look at the clearing house side at

I lucked out the first time I tried it, and was able to borrow WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel. This was an extremely well-researched and thoughtful historical fiction– my only complaint is that I kept waiting for Thomas Cromwell's execution at the end, but as the distance to the end got smaller and smaller, I finally realized we were going to stop with Thomas More's execution instead– and the rest of Cromwell's life will be coming in a sequel.

Mantel's Thomas Cromwell is a working class man who rises very high and tries to move towards increased equality while being fully loyal to the king. The story is oddly plotless– it feels rather like a dark picaresque, which would be, I suppose because of its close hewing to the historical facts. For a long time I didn't think she really had Cromwell, that it would have been better to have created his character from the outside, maybe from his son's view or the point of view of one of his wards (I particularly liked his nephew Richard, his sister's child, who took the name Cromwell and was an ancestor of Oliver Cromwell). But in the end, Mantel won me over with her odd point of view, a close third person that rarely names Cromwell. It as if we had a view into his world, with blinders (or is that the dark tunnel effect I feel when I read on the Kindle?), seeing through his eyes but often not knowing what he is planning or thinking. People enter, there's a scene, there's not necessarily any particular drama, they're gone, we're elsewhere. Again, this comes from hewing to the facts, but it requires a little revision of your narrative expectations, of what to expect from a scene.

For the 2009 Christopher Benfey review in the November NEW YORK TIMES (he agrees with me about the quality of picaresque) see

Two more on the Kindle: THE ELEPHANT'S JOURNEY by José Saramago. This is also historical in its essential outlines– that the king of Portugal sends his elephant to Vienna as a gift, but the tone and story are quintessential Saramago– the best characters workers and soldiers and elephant handlers, and the animal itself: big personality and very wise, but fully an elephant, never a human being. Everything is told richly and simply – Solomon/Suleiman the elephant, his mahout, the Portuguese soldiers and their commanding officer, the crossing of the Alps, the Austrian soldiers and the archduke– the apotheosis of an elder writing in the fullness of his strength.

And– Kindle owners! A huge bargain: you can get an omnibus edition of 12 Saramago novels for less than $20! With an introduction by Ursula LeGuin! Saramago Collection .

I also reread Mrs. Gaskell's NORTH AND SOUTH, and oh what a delight, perfect for the forward linearity of the e-reader. Mrs. Gaskell's work is very deliberate and clear and straightforward– no need for flipping back and forth. One of my favorite things about her is that she addresses things most of the Old Victorians never touch, or at least don't humanize. The hard thing about her is certain limitations of imagination, in this novel an ideological commitment to the superiority of the educated liberal Christian and the danger of people in combinations such as unions. You have to lay that aside– but once you do, Mrs. G. manages to make her main character Margaret Hale strong, suffering, a little wild, yet a complete lady– and above all a woman with a complex moral conscience.

I also like NORTH AND SOUTH's Mr. Rochester effect, which is that the powerful, passionate man clearly meant to be Margaret's mate, must be brought down from his arrogant high horse before the match can be made. Gaskell doesn't blind her Mr. Thornton as her friend Charlotte Brontë did to her Mr. Rochester, but Gaskell does put him in dire financial straits, and then (take that, Mr. Captain of Industry!) she allows Margaret to inherit just enough wealth to help him. Only then can they meet as equals in marriage.

There's one wonderfully melodramatic but vivid scene when Margaret challenges Thornton to go face the crowd of angry strikers in person, and then, when the crowd gets nasty, she goes herself and stands between him and them. In fact, in her desire to protect him, she throws her arms around his neck. Thornton's reaction (this part feels so right) is actually physical pleasure and a conviction that the young woman obviously is in love with him if she would embrace him in public. He then fantasizes about her touch for weeks– it's pretty hot stuff for the nineteenth century and a novelist who is a pastor's wife.

Somewhat less satisfying, but not bad, is her portrait of a "good" union man, Nicholas Higgins, who teaches Thornton a few things, but also has to learn a few. Thornton, who is in fact a former worker who really did accumulate his own capital, sits down with Higgins, and they come up with some ways of working together. It rejects the all-worker union, but at least gives the privilege to a kind of mutuality.

One note about an element of all Mrs. Gaskell's work that 21st century readers may mistake for melodrama is how characters drop like flies– they die of consumption, of apoplexy, of heart disease and some unnamed female complaint, probably a cancer– but to Gaskell's mind, death of people in their fifties and sixties is perfectly normal, as is consumption taking a girl of nineteen or twenty. Think, in fact, of the Brontë siblings: two dead of Tuberculosis before 30, the brother of alcoholism (probably) even earlier, and Charlotte while pregnant at the age of 38.

And my final Kindle report: THE GOOD SOLDIER by Ford Madox Ford. (You see the pattern– the free books are pre-second world war). This was actually a re-read, but my previous read feels like infinite years ago, and I don't think I got it at all. Or maybe I read it at the wrong time.

It is a beautifully revealed novel about really miserable people. It unpeels like the proverbial onion, starting out conventional to the point of boring, then picking up steam and complications as one character after another proves to be betraying, cruel, even vulgar, The narrator is a totally hopeless idiot who may be forty at the end and possibly still a virgin, whose purpose in life seems to be caretaker for women he thinks he loves– there are suicides, gambling debts, adultery and fornication, insanity, a wife who tries to manage her husband's mistresses, a husband who is repelled by his wife, a wife who refuses to have sex with her husband at all but has lovers under his nose.

Oh, and the serial adulterer is probably the only noble character in the novel. The book is in many ways over the top, but I couldn't stop reading. An astringently nasty novel.

-- Meredith Sue Willis


I've been fiction blogging in some form since 2003. I've been writing Dandy Darkly for three years. Blog fiction is a creative writing form incorporating the use of popular blogging websites, such as Typepad and Blogspot, to present original, self-published works of fiction to a primarily online readership.

Although it represents a fringe corner of the blogosphere and is sometimes regarded as a fad among critical and academic circles, I think blog fiction is a growing medium that will eventually find literary recognition. The medium itself allows for a wide variety of creative formats. Online diaries, a serialized depiction of fictional characters or a collection of short stories are all represented by fiction blogs.

The online format also grants a multitude of options for a writer to go beyond merely typed words on a web page. These include the ability to hyperlink events in the text to real time news stories and other websites, which may be real or fake themselves. Search functions and categorization give readers quick access to characters and themes so they can catch up on details they may have missed.

Online social media such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to progress story lines outside the blog itself while also bringing in readership. Reader interaction can be encouraged through the use of comment boxes and web page sharing. Photos and illustrations can easily be uploaded. Embedded sounds effects or music can create an aural backdrop for visitors to listen to as they read. YouTube is available to present live action segments, be it public readings by the author, visual segments for reference by a reader or a fully staged, live-action scene culled and performed from the story itself.

It is the discretion of the writer how far these other sources of information remove their work from the traditional notion of fiction at its purest, that being solely words on a page. But with so many options at your fingertips, I feel blog fiction can keep true to that ideal while offering so many other avenues for the writer to express himself or herself. Blog fiction is in the process of finding its own shape.

Any literary project morphs and reveals itself the more you write, but this fact feels especially true of a fiction blog, particularly as new technology and social media trends go in and out of vogue. My fiction blog, Dandy Darkly, has shifted from what began as highly serialized, short stories to a longer format with many recurring characters and far reaching plot lines. The challenge has been in presenting short works that stand alone in both quality of writing and clarity of story while keeping true to a larger narrative arc and hinting at things to come. At times if feels like I'm improvising a novel in published chunks.

Another challenge is finding an audience. Hawking my blog is an exhausting task. Attention spans are short on the web. With an inundation of websites to browse, readership can be sparse for a fiction blog. Hence many of the "bells and whistles" listed above. Ideally a writer wants the strength of the words alone to draw in and keep readers, but on the web that simply isn't always the case. I have a fiction blog because I love the evolving format and I'm passionate about what I'm writing and performing. Ultimately I'm as along for the ride as my characters are. I recommend every writer play with the format. It's been a rewarding journey and I'm eager to see what will happen as technology evolves and more writers turn to fiction blogging to express themselves.
– Neil Arthur James

For the full issue, with announcements and reader responses, go to

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Last Day...

... is beautiful after days and days of rain. I'm under the weather, but heading out soon for Saturday night events-- cut grass, planted some squash I forgot, more cilantro, got an article proposal off, and I'm feeling like it's a vacation day. Not that I'm doing nothing, but that I'm on the back porch (just cleaned yesterday!) hearing birds of various stripes chatting, sun and clouds, grass marvellously green-- the back needs cutting too. I am so glad to be out here, to be here, which is the best mood for whatever comes next.