Friday, June 28, 2013

Meredith Sue Willis's

Books for Readers # 162

June 28, 2013

Etel Adnan                                          Ann Patchett                                          Laura Treacy Bentley

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In this Issue:

Sitt Marie Rose; Team of Rivals; The Cove; Ann Patchett

The E-Reader Report with John Birch

Laura Treacy Bentley's First Novel

Announcements: Including Naomi Replansky's
award for her Collected Poems!

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I haven't done a Books for Readers Newsletter in more than a month. I've been travelling-- as far as Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee where I taught a master class in fiction and enjoyed the Appalachian mountains around that part of the world where Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee converge. My dad was born in that region, and I used to spend summers with my grandmother in Wise County Virginia, and visit my aunt in Scott County Tennessee. I'm always struck by the love of story in Appalachia, whether read, spoken or sung. This enriches Appalachian writers' conferences, where you also find deep and abiding respect for literature and the belief in finding meaning from the path of the story. I had a lovely week-end, and recommend that everyone go to Mountain Heritage Literary Festival .
In the interstices between traveling and teaching and writing, I've been reading. I have some books you may not have heard of, and some that are doing quite well for themselves, thank you very much! Among the latter is Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which was the main source for the recent block buster movie, Lincoln. The book was on its own merits a best seller for a few weeks in 2005.
I especially enjoyed the story of Lincoln's road to the nomination for president. Kearns Goodwin emphasizes his political talent and his ability to bring the best out of men with very large egos, and she also, like so many before her, falls under the spell of Lincoln's personality and integrity. I heard people praising him my whole life, except for when they were complaining that he wasn't anti-slavery soon enough. In this book, I finally got it: his charm, and his enormous abilities and also the terrible trade offs required for dealing in a multi-party system with people whose values are corrupt.
It was a nasty, nasty war: the sheer number of deaths in battle was extraordinary. One of the excellent elements in this book is the personalization of the struggle through he use of letters and journals voices of many people, especially women like Frances (Mrs. William) Seward and Mary Lincoln and young men like Lincoln's secretaries (and future biographers) Hays and Nicolay. They tell Lincoln stories, of course, but also what it was like to have family members dying in war or coming home terribly mangled.
Other striking things: How short the war was in years; how intractable was the hatred of black people and injustice to them, not only in the south. The horrors of Mississippi in summer 1964 was, after all, only three generations after the war. The terrorism during the Civil Rights movement was in many ways a continuation of the war.
Finally, it was a book about about writing: a lot of time is spent on how Lincoln's speeches were revised, and how he-- a sharp logician and rhetorician--turned so often to storytelling to reach an understanding himself and to communicate to others.

More nonfiction: I also read the enormous doorstopper of a biography of Joseph Kennedy, THE PATRIARCH: THE REMARKABLE LIFE AND TURBULENT TIMES OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY by David Nasaw. I was at Bucknell University for a while when he was there, so I have some interest in Nasaw's career.
It took me a long time to decide I wanted to read this 800 pager about a man and family I never quite understood what was so terrific about: that is to say, I never got the romanticizing of the Kennedies, and reading about the patriarch of the family didn't make me like them or respect their politics much-- but I did get fascinated.
Even after I'd dipped into the book, I kept laying it aside. Usually, I am drawn into biographies by the childhood stories, but for some reason, I don't know if it was Nasaw or Kennedy, this one didn't really get going till Kennedy started acting in government. You'd think his years in Hollywood and his affair with Gloria Swanson would be fun, but through the first couple of hundred pages I just didn't care enough about Kennedy. What kept me reading was wanting to out about the lobotomy of the oldest Kennedy daughter, who appeared to be slow but not all that damaged until they opened up her head.
When Kennedy became ambassador to England and his kids got older, I began to get really interested. His opposition to the war– for conservative reasons– gave me a look at the Roosevelt administration I'd never had. I always vaguely thought everything was rah-rah go FDR-- well, maybe not the New Deal, but surely the Second World War was popular, yes?
Kennedy thought the Second World War had the potential to destroy capitalism,and thus should be opposed! Still, he played as best he could the part of a good soldier, representing the Roosevelt administration, at least most of the time.
Then the Kennedy boys went to war, and the familiar family catastrophes began: within ten years he lost his oldest son, lost his oldest daughter to lobotomy and his next daughter to an airplane crash. This was all long before the famous assassinations. The decimation of a family brings up feelings, no matter how much you don't like most of what Kennedy stood for.
The political parts are excellent: in the second half, Kennedy's efforts to support his sons' political careers offers a real lesson in how those things are done in the real world, with lots of money and the calling in of favors and building relationships.

Another of the books that doesn't need my praise is William Styron's Sophie's Choice, which I re-read (again?). I admire this book a lot and this time I was particularly impressed by the novel's elegant shape, although the narrator maybe makes it a little too explicit: how it begins with the noisy lovemaking bed and ends with death in the bed.
My favorites are all the parts that Sophie narrates; charmer-schizo Nathan is a superb character; Styron creates some good Nazi characters; and I adore the post-war New York City setting. It is a good book, probably (IMHO) Styron's best. I even like, up to a point, Stingo as a narrator and the writer-as-a- young artist theme, but this is also where I see the novel's flaws. There is just too much of Stingo's sex life (or lack of it). Some of it is funny, some of it is painful, but I get it much sooner than Styron gives up on writing about it! A nice boy in the late nineteen forties has a hard row to hoe with the nice girls determined to be modern but virginal. Fine, let's get on with Sophie and Nathan.
Finally, the whole theme of the young writer wanting to be "great" is painful to read, maybe too close to home for me, but his suffering reminds me that the Age of the Great-Man American Novelist seems to have petered out in depression and alcohol and buffoonery (in the case of Norman Mailer). Happily, we've still got great novels being written, without all the posturing.

                                                                               --Meredith Sue Willis

Short Notes

Etel Adnan's small novel SITT MARIE ROSE is an amazing hundred pages set during the (last) Lebanese Civil War. An ethnically Christian woman lives with Palestinians, loves a Palestinian man, and works for their cause. An old boyfriend in the Christian militia is part of a small group who captures, interrogates, and murders her in the school where she woks with deaf children. The brief story is told in many voices: the children speak as a group, the militia men have their turn. There is hunting imagery, there is Sitt Marie Rose's feminist sensibility. The only real Christian, she says, is one who stands up for the Stranger. It is a poet's novel, searing and beautiful. Worth seeking out-- I found it as a used book on the Internet.

I admired and enjoyed reading Ann Patchett's The Magician's Assistant, except for the ending. Patchett is an very inventive and moving writer, and I'm a big fan of her Bel Canto. This one is good too: it is just what is says, the story of a woman who has made her life as the assistant to a charismatic magician. She is in love with him, even marries him, and he is loving towards her, but sexually attracted to men. He dies, and she discovers the secrets of his birth family.
It's all about Los Angeles and Nebraska, with well-drawn mid western characters who are firmly of their place but not condescended to. I was, however, disappointed by the ending which has what I think of as a short story ending: that is, it is clever and surprising with a dollop of "real" magic. I think this kind of thing works best in something short. It seemed too slight for the solid weight of realism that preceded it. I felt like Patchett was dodging a lot of human character-driven questions she had raised and hinted at.
Well, I always say I read novels for the journey, not for the final five pages.

My first Ron Rash novel was a short work called The Cove, with clean strong writing and a good story. Something in it seemed, however, manipulative to me. It wasn't the sentences-- he's clearly a superb craftsman-- but it was as if he planned his plot and stuck to it, whether or not it worked. The story sets up a mystery in the first pages: whose skull is in the old well? Then we go back in time to a family living in a hollow that doesn't really get enough sun for farming, where the parents are dead, the daughter shunned as a witch, the son back from the war short a hand. A stranger arrives, and we're off to the races: a lot of energy and a lot of momentum, but the deaths at the end seem to me to fit a plan rather than rise from the story.
There is an interesting author's note in the e-book version I read saying that Rash revised the book, de-emphasized one of the point-of-view characters, a one-dimensional bigoted sleazebag.

I also want to make a short mention of Chinua Achebe's Hopes and Impediments:Selected Essays by Chinua Achebe. I intend to re-read many of the essays here, especially the ones on the uses of fiction and of course the seminal "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." For now, I just want to quote from "The Truth of Fiction:"
"How often do we hear people say, 'Oh, I don't have the time to read novels,' implying that fiction is frivolous? They would generally add– lest you consider them illiterate– that they read histories or biographies, which they presume to be more appropriate to serious-minded adults. Such people are to be pitied; they are like a six-cylinder car which says: Oh, I can manage all right on three sparking-plugs, thank you very much. Well, it can manage somehow but it will sound like an asthmatic motorcycle! The life of the imagination is a vital element of our total nature. If we starve it or pollute it the quality of our life is depressed or soiled.
"For just as man is a tool-making animal and has recreated his natural world with his tools, so is he a fiction-making animal and refashions his imaginative landscape with his fictions."

I also read MONTECORE: THE SILENCE OF THE TIGER by Jonas Hassen Khemiri-- an excellent book, truly political. See Shelley Ettinger's review on POLITERATURE at:
and my response .


Laura Treacy Bentley's first novel THE SILVER TATTOO moves from West Virginia to Ireland where protagonist Leah Howland must face not only the terrible thing that happened to her husband, but also her own guilt and fears– and a very real and very mysterious threat to her life.
This dark literary thriller is an interesting mixture of the dark fears that pursue us when we are isolated in strange places and real life horrors that require courage and determination to face. Bentley easily combines these these with suspense and literary and folk references in a powerful combination of psychological thriller and paen to Ireland.
Bentley is a poet whose work has been praised by Ray Bradbury. For more commentary on The Silver Tattoo, see the review in the Herald-Dispatch .


Naomi Replansky says, "Thank you, as always, for the newsletter. And for sending me now to Willkie Collins. I've been re-reading George Gissing with great admiration, in particular for his NEW GRUB STREET."

Phyllis Moore liked Joel Weinberger's review of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES and recommends Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces by Cory MacLauchlin.


Publishers Random House have launched a mobile Facebook app called BookScout, which it describes as an "e-book discovering engine." It goes to great lengths to learn about your reading likes and dislikes, and then recommends books you'll probably enjoy but probably wouldn't have discovered on your own. Book Scout recommends Random House's books, of course, but also pretty much every book in the listings of major distributors, such as Ingram. The app will offer you a list of retailers that have your book of choice, and with a few more mouse clicks you'll have bought.
To see how it works, just type "BookScout" into Facebook.
About John Birch: The great Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock once wrote a piece called "Men Who Have Shaved Me," and John's decided to do his version of it. Read "Clip Joints" in his blog: -- a growing collection of nearly 30 of his short stories, articles and essays.


Phyllis Moore reviewed Jackson Versus Witchy Wanda by Belinda Anderson on Amazon.

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya recommends that we "try anything by the remarkable Etel Adnan (, whose sensibility I've always found lapidary."
I was sold. See my short review of Etel Adnan's Sitt Marie Rose above.


Don't miss Marc Kaminsky's wonderful piece in Tikkun about the fate of the Palestinian village of Lifta near Jerusalem:
There's an excellent story about a shift in relationship between two school boys by John Birch at!
Learn about Jane Austen's use of latinate words to distinguish the class of her characters:
If you want more on spying, see this Guardian piece on the FBI and Carlos Fuentes:
There's a lovely, short, online documentary about McDowell County, West Virginia.


Our friend Backchannel sends the following notes:


Great news: Naomi Replansky's Collected Poems, published by Godine/Black Sparrow in 2012, has just won the William Carlos Williams award of the Poetry Society of America!

The Ice Mountain Writers in the Hampshire County area of West Virginia will be meeting in Romney, West Virginia July 18, 3013, at 2pm at the library in Romney.
Alice Boatwright's book COLLATERAL DAMAGE (reviewed won the Bronze Medal for Literary Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Alice says it feels just like the Olympics.
Halvard Johnson's book of poems Remains to Be Seen has been published by Spuyten Duyvil Press. REMAINS TO BE SEEN ]
June 29, 2013: The Literary Image and Impact of Breece D'J Pancake: Native Son Symposium. 1140 Smith Street, Milton, WV 304-743-6711 Speakers: Dr. Grace Toney Edwards 10:00 a.m. An Overview of Pancake's Life and Career Dr. Rob McDonald 11:00 a.m. Native Ground, the Role of Place In Shaping Literary Imagination Marie Manilla 1:30 p.m. An Analysis of Pancake's Writing Panel of Peers 2:30 p.m. Breece As We Knew Him Phyllis Wilson Moore 3:30 p.m. The Impact of Pancake's Work

The largest unionized bookstore in America has a webstore at Powells Books. Some people prefer shopping online there to shopping at An alternative way to reach Powell's site and support the union is via Prices are the same but 10% of your purchase will go to support the union benefit fund.
For a discussion of Amazon and organized labor and small presses, see the comments of Jonathan Greene and others in Issues #97 and #98 .


If a book discussed in this newsletter has no source mentioned, don’t forget that you may be able to borrow it from your public library as either a hard copy or a digital copy. You may also buy or order from your local independent bookstore. To buy books online, I often go first to Bookfinder or Alibris. Bookfinder tells you the book price WITH shipping and handling, so you can compare what you’re really going to have to pay.
A lot of people whose political instincts I respect prefer the unionized bricks-and-mortar bookstore Powells (see "About" above) that sells online at  
Another source for used and out-of-print books is All Book Stores. Also consider Paperback Book Swap, a low cost (postage only) way to get rid of your old books and get new ones by trading with other readers.

If you are using an electronic reader like Kindle, Nook, or Kobo, don't forget free books at the Gutenberg Project—mostly classics, but other things as well. And libraries now lend e-books too!


Please send responses to this newsletter and suggestions directly to Meredith Sue Willis . Unless you instruct otherwise, your responses may be edited for length and published in this newsletter.

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#162 Lincoln, Joseph Kennedy, Etel Adnan, Laura Treacy Bentley, Ron Rash, Sophie's Choice, and more
#161 More Wilkie Collins; Duff Brenna's Murdering the Mom; Nora Olsen's Swans & Klons; Lady Audley's Secret
#160 Carolina De Robertis, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Ross King's The Judgment of Paris
#159 Tom Jones. William Luvaas, Marc Harshman, The Good Earth, Lara Santoro, American Psycho
#158 Chinua Achebe's Man of the People; The Red and the Black; McCarthy's C.; Farm City; Victor Depta;Myra Shapiro
#157 Alice Boatwright, Reamy Jansen, Herta Muller, Knut Hamsun, What Maisie Knew; Wanchee Wang, Dolly Withrow.
#156 The Glass Madonna; A Revelation
#155 Buzz Bissinger; reader suggestions; Satchmo at the Waldorf
#154 Hannah Brown, Brad Abruzzi, Thomas Merton
#153 J.Anthony Lukas, Talmage Stanley's The Poco Fields, Devil Anse
#152 Marc Harshman guest editor; John Burroughs; Carol Hoenig
#151 Deborah Clearman, Steve Schrader, Paul Harding, Ken Follet, Saramago-- and more!
#150 Mitch Levenberg, Johnny Sundstrom, and Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns.
#149 David Weinberger's Too Big to Know; The Shining; The Tiger's Wife.
#148 The Moonstone, Djibouti, Mark Perry on the Grimké family
#147 Jane Lazarre's new novel; Johnny Sundstrom; Emotional Medicine Rx; Walter Dean Myers, etc.
#146 Henry Adams AGAIN!  Also,Fun Home: a Tragicomic
#145 Henry Adams, Darnell Arnoult, Jaimy Gordon, Charlotte Brontë
#144 Carter Seaton, NancyKay Shapiro, Lady Murasaki Shikibu
#143 Little America; Guns,Germs, and Steel; The Trial
#142 Blog Fiction, Leah by Seymour Epstein, Wolf Hall, etc.
#141 Dreama Frisk on Hilary Spurling's Pearl Buck in China; Anita Desai; Cormac McCarthy
#140 Valerie Nieman's Blood Clay, Dolly Withrow
#139 My Kindle, The Prime Minister, Blood Meridian
#138 Special on Publicity by Carter Seaton
#137 Michael Harris's The Chieu Hoi Saloon; Game of Thrones; James Alexander Thom's Follow the River
#136 James Boyle's The Creative Commons; Paola Corso, Joanne Greenberg, Monique Raphel High, Amos Oz
#135 Reviews by Carole Rosenthal, Jeffrey Sokolow, and Wanchee Wang.
#134 Daniel Deronda, books with material on black and white relations in West Virginia
#133 Susan Carpenter, Irene Nemirovsky, Jonathan Safran Foer, Kanafani, Joe Sacco
#132 Karen Armstrong's A History of God; JCO's The Falls; The Eustace Diamonds again.
#131 The Help; J. McHenry Jones, Reamy Jansen, Jamie O'Neill, Michael Chabon.
Lynda Schor, Ed Myers, Charles Bukowski, Terry Bisson, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism
#129 Baltasar and Blimunda; Underground Railroad; Navasky's Naming Names, small press and indie books.
#128 Jeffrey Sokolow on Histories and memoirs of the Civil Rights Movement
#127 Olive Kitteridge; Urban fiction; Shelley Ettinger on Joyce Carol Oates
#126 Jack Hussey's Ghosts of Walden, The Leopard , Roger's Version, The Reluctanct Fundamentalist
#125 Lee Maynard's The Pale Light of Sunset; Books on John Brown suggested by Jeffrey Sokolow
#124 Cloudsplitter, Founding Brothers, Obenzinger on Bradley's Harlem Vs. Columbia University
#123 MSW's summer reading round-up; Olive Schreiner; more The Book Thief; more on the state of editing
#122 Left-wing cowboy poetry; Jewish partisans during WW2; responses to "Hire a Book Doctor?"
#121 Jane Lazarre's latest; Irving Howe's Leon Trotsky; Gringolandia; "Hire a Book Doctor?"
#120 Dreama Frisk on The Book Thief; Mark Rudd; Thulani Davis's summer reading list
#119 Two Histories of the Jews; small press books for Summer
#118 Kasuo Ichiguro, Jeanette Winterson, The Carter Family!
#117 Cat Pleska on Ann Pancake; Phyllis Moore on Jayne Anne Phillips; and Dolly Withrow on publicity
#116 Ann Pancake, American Psycho, Marc Harshman on George Mackay Brown
#115 Adam Bede, Nietzsche, Johnny Sundstrom
#114 Judith Moffett, high fantasy, Jared Diamond, Lily Tuck
#113 Espionage--nonfiction and fiction: Orson Scott Card and homophobia
#112 Marc Kaminsky, Nel Noddings, Orson Scott Card, Ed Myers
#111 James Michener, Mary Lee Settle, Ardian Gill, BIll Higginson, Jeremy Osner, Carol Brodtick
#110  Nahid Rachlin, Marion Cuba on self-publishing; Thulani Davis, The Road, memoirs
#109 Books about the late nineteen-sixties: Busy Dying; Flying Close to the Sun; Looking Good; Trespassers
#108 The Animal Within; The Ground Under My Feet; King of Swords
#107 The Absentee; Gorky Park; Little Scarlet; Howl; Health Proxy
#106 Castle Rackrent; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; More on Drown; Blindness & more
#105 Everything is Miscellaneous, The Untouchable, Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher
#104 Responses to Shelley on Junot Diaz and more; More best books of 2007
#103 Guest Editor: Shelley Ettinger and her best books of 2007
#102 Saramago's BLINDNESS; more on NEVER LET ME GO; George Lies on Joe Gatski
#101 My Brilliant Career, The Scarlet Letter, John Banville, Never Let Me Go
#100 The Poisonwood Bible, Pamela Erens, More Harry P.
#99   Jonathan Greene on; Molly Gilman on Dogs of Babel
#98   Guest editor Pat Arnow; more on the debate
#97   Using Thomas Hardy; Why I Write; more
#96   Lucy Calkins, issue fiction for young adults
#95   Collapse, Harry Potter, Steve Geng
#94   Alice Robinson-Gilman, Maynard on Momaday
#93   Kristin Lavransdatter, House Made of Dawn, Leaving Atlanta
#92   Death of Ivan Ilych; Memoirs
#91   Richard Powers discussion
#90   William Zinsser, Memoir, Shakespeare
#89   William Styron, Ellen Willis, Dune, Germinal, and much more
#88   Sandra Cisneros's Caramelo
#87   Wings of the Dove, Forever After (9/11 Teachers)
#86   Leora Skolkin-Smith, American Pastoral, and more
#85   Wobblies, Winterson, West Virginia Encyclopedia
#84   Karen Armstrong, Geraldine Brooks, Peter Taylor
#83   3-Cornered World, Da Vinci Code
#82   The Eustace Diamonds, Strapless, Empire Falls
#81   Philip Roth's The Plot Against America , Paola Corso
#80   Joanne Greenberg, Ed Davis, more Murdoch; Special Discussion on Memoir--Frey and J.T. Leroy
#79   Adam Sexton, Iris Murdoch, Hemingway
#78   The Hills at Home; Tess of the D'Urbervilles; Jean Stafford
#77   On children's books--guest editor Carol Brodtrick
#76   Mary Lee Settle, Mary McCarthy
#75   The Makioka Sisters
#74    In Our Hearts We Were Giants
#73    Joyce Dyer
#72    Bill Robinson WWII story
#71    Eva Kollisch on G.W. Sebald
#70    On Reading
#69    Nella Larsen, Romola
#68    P.D. James
#67    The Medici
#66    Curious Incident,Temple Grandin
   Ingrid Hughes on Memoir
    Boyle, Worlds of Fiction
#63    The Namesame
#62    Honorary Consul; The Idiot
#61    Lauren's Line
#60    Prince of Providence
#59    The Mutual Friend, Red Water
#58    AkÉ,
Season of Delight
#57    Screaming with Cannibals

#56    Benita Eisler's Byron
#55    Addie, Hottentot Venus, Ake
#54    Scott Oglesby, Jane Rule
#53    Nafisi,Chesnutt, LeGuin
#52    Keith Maillard, Lee Maynard
#51    Gregory Michie, Carter Seaton
#50    Atonement, Victoria Woodhull biography
Richard Price, Phillip Pullman
#47    Mid- East Islamic World Reader
#46    Invitation to a Beheading
#45    The Princess of Cleves
#44    Shelley Ettinger: A Few Not-so-Great Books
#43    Woolf, The Terrorist Next Door
#42    John Sanford
#41    Isabelle Allende
#40    Ed Myers on John Williams
#39    Faulkner
#38    Steven Bloom No New Jokes
#37    James Webb's Fields of Fire
#36    Middlemarch
#35    Conrad, Furbee, Silas House
#34    Emshwiller
#33    Pullman, Daughter of the Elm
#32    More Lesbian lit; Nostromo
#31    Lesbian fiction
#30    Carol Shields, Colson Whitehead
#29    More William Styron
#28    William Styron
#27    Daniel Gioseffi
#26    Phyllis Moore
   On Libraries....
#24    Tales of the City
   Nonfiction, poetry, and fiction
#22    More on Why This Newsletter
#21    Salinger, Sarah Waters, Next of Kin
#20    Jane Lazarre
#19    Artemisia Gentileschi
#18    Ozick, Coetzee, Joanna Torrey
#17    Arthur Kinoy
#16    Mrs. Gaskell and lots of other suggestions
#15    George Dennison, Pat Barker, George Eliot
#14    Small Presses
#13    Gap Creek, Crum
#12    Reading after 9-11
#11    Political Novels
#10    Summer Reading ideas
#9      Shelley Ettinger picks
#8      Harriette Arnow's Hunter's Horn
#7      About this newsletter
#6      Maria Edgeworth
#5      Tales of Good and Evil; Moon Tiger
#4      Homer Hickam and The Chosen
#3      J.T. LeRoy and Tale of Genji
#2      Chick Lit
#1      About this newsletter

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