Meredith Sue Willis's
August 7, 2013
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In this Issue:
Things to read online;
Special Project for Rural Women
This Gone Place: Poems by Lisa J. Parker
Audiobook of Screaming With the Cannibals
The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden
The Virgins by Pamela Erens
Romantic History by Michael Harris
The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
Cat Pleska Reviews The Silver Tattoo
The E-Reader Report with John Birch
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I'm excited to be writing this month about three brand new novels and one recent one: a historical drama centered on American slavery; a prep school story of doomed love; another love story that spans decades; and a story set at a forward base of the American army in Afghanistan that is structured by a Greek tragedy. That's what I love about fiction: you fly over centuries and continents to burrow deep into the lives of others through the power of the writer's imagination-- and yours, the reader's.
Marlen Bodden's novel The Wedding Gift is the story of several interlinked families enmeshed in the American institution of slavery shortly before the Civil War. The two main characters, Sarah Campbell and Theodora Allen, show us that world from the view of a young enslaved woman and from a white plantation owner's wife.
Sarah is the heroine: she is vital and brave and brilliant, and engineers her own escape from slavery– as well as her awful revenge. Theodora, a generation older, faces secret horrors: the discovery that her daughter Clarissa has an enslaved half sister; the realization that her brutish husband, if he loves anyone, loves his enslaved concubine. Later, Theodora's daughter Clarissa is the cause of a shattering scandal among the slave owners.
Carefully researched, the novel has appealing characters, complex situations, and powerful story momentum. It also offers a stunning portrait of a well-run Alabama cotton plantation of the 1850's. Bodden sets up the Allen Plantation as a relatively benign place. The Master, Mr. Allen, finds it economically favorable to provide decent housing, food, gifts, and even holidays for his property. Of course, he treats his wife and legitimate daughter as well-dressed chattels as well. Slavery is shown to be, even in relatively humane conditions, a corrupting abomination both to the enslaved and the enslavers.
Early in her marriage, Theodora is jealous of her husband's concubine, but this changes to a certain kind of camaraderie as they try to do the best for both of their daughters. It is Theodora who teaches Sarah to read, and Sarah uses her knowledge to read poetry– and also to write passes and manumission papers.
Another pleasure of the book is the legal machinations over Mr. Allen's inheritance. Ms. Bodden is herself a lawyer and knows not only how the law works, but how to make it an interesting part of the story. What finally drives the novel is the questions: What is in the will? Exactly how badly will Mr. Allen treat his legitimate wife and children? Who is the black father of a white woman's child? Who will run and who will be caught? Who will live and who will die? And above all, will Sarah's skills and courage–and the support of her family and community–be enough to get her to freedom?
The novel satisfyingly combines a hopeful future for many of the people we like best along with a real shock at the end. It is an exciting, informative, and deeply entertaining novel.
Pamela Erens' new novel The Virgins is a beautifully written story in the long line of prep school novels going back at least to A Separate Peace -- distinctly adolescent worlds, in which adults are on the periphery. Here, the adults check dorm rooms for sexual and drug activity or offer occasional bumbling support, which the young people promptly turn down. Adolescents are always, of course, about making their own social circles– making themselves, actually– but here, in spite of some visits home to families in varying stages of dysfunction, divorce, drunkenness, coldness, and high-pressure expectation, there is no other reality at all.
The three main characters in The Virgins are Seung, an attractive and appealing Korean-American boy; Aviva, who is Jewish American from Chicago; and Bennet-Jones, the WASP narrator and reconstructor of the story, who appears at first to be a peripheral narrator, but becomes increasingly less dependable and more involved.
He is the only principal character who is a traditional prep school type: that is, he is from a line of fathers and sons of the old American upper class. The other two, Aviva and Seung, are the children of immigrants, so there is an interesting culture and class clash going on– this theme is not central, but Erens is such a subtle writer that many not-so-obvious things are always at play.
The story line, culminating in a break-up and betrayal, is that Aviva decides to remake herself and talks her parents into sending her to the prep school where she causes a stir and begins a year long relationship with Seung. Their relationship is disturbing to the school because it consists of long hours of physical passion as they two explore one another's bodies in great detail, but never have coitus. The whole school sees them kissing and touching and knows she visits his room, and everyone admires and envies their free and presumably complete sexual relationship. It's a fascinating premise to explore, and Erens does a wonderful job.
Both young people in the end feel they are failing-- failing to reach each other, to penetrate, as it were. In the end, their failure ends in catastrophe. The sexual activity is described in painstaking detail (and keep in mind that the narrator is always Bennet-Jones, who is a kind of undependable, creative voyeur.) It's a wonderfully told story, excruciatingly painful. Erens is harder on Aviva than on Seung, even though he is eager to try drugs, dependent on other people, and heroic in his determination to please Aviva.
Michael Harris's new novel is Romantic History has a strong young woman character, Maggie, a rebel, talented and smart, who thinks she can handle herself after a life with a drunken Private Investigator dad. She ends up raped horrifically, then working in a massage parlor, marrying a career criminal she meets there-- and going with him on a robbery spree. She is wonderfully messed up and feisty, and I like her better young than old. Older she is still interesting, but too involved in New Age theorizing for my taste.
The other main character, Paul, a newsman, loves Maggie over many decades, and their relationship is the romantic history of the title. Along with the love story is a lot of interesting material about the failing newspaper business on the west Coast. There are colorful newspaper characters and a little labor unrest that doesn't go well.
The strength of this book is how many ways it opens, unpeels, rebuilds, and re-envisions its damaged characters. It circles around its events nicely, giving us a look at Paul and then the youthful Paul, and then some young Maggie and some old Maggie.
It also has a surprisingly satisfying triplet ending. That is, we are given three possible endings, a probable one; a violent one, and a freeze frame. This works extremely well-- far better than I would have guessed, and does not feel like a cop out, but a continuation of the exploration of the people's lives.
Finally, in my fiction round-up, is The Watch , a highly praised, commercially- published Afghanistan War novel. Joydeep Roy-Battacharya did deep research for this: he acknowledges many soldiers he interviewed. He builds his world with the right music, the right vulgarities, knowledge of the rules of engagement, of weapons, and even the various backgrounds of the characters including flashbacks to Baton Rouge and a small town in Vermont.
He structures the story around Sophocles' Antigone: a Pashtun woman arrives outside a US base in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. She has no lower legs or feet, and has dragged herself for many miles in a cart. She wants to bury her brother, who probably led an attack on the base after a drone strike killed most of their family and gravely wounded her.
The book follows several points of views– the sister first, then various Americans, including one articulate and educated first Lieutenant who wants to be a warrior out of an ideal of honor. In his diary he writes, "I'm at the epicenter of the place where the forces of fascism– of religious fundamentalism, societal repression, and violent hatred– must be contained. When I'm challenged about the consequences of my actions, I ask the person to look me in the eye and ask if he or she truly believes that peace would return and the condition of the women and children, especially, would improve if we decided to leave this place."
Another character, the medic (who I wish had had a full point-of-view section) sees things differently. He says, "The Pashtuns are in this thing as a people. And that legless girl in her cart is part of that. They know what they're fighting for– they're fighting for their survival, their homes, their beliefs. Okay, fine, those beliefs are fucked up, what are we fighting for? We got kids here whose only option in life is either the army or methlands. Sure, we also got the high-tech ordnance and every damn textbook strategy under the sun. It doesn't matter. Their slings and stones are more powerful than our M-203's. Their nation's more powerful than our army."
Roy-Battacharya puts in everything: all the viewpoints, all the smells and sensations of war, all the richly realized backgrounds of his characters. It is not a huge book, but it is thick with detail, sometimes almost too much for a story with its reminders of the spare staging of classical Greek theater.
What is best here, aside from the heavy beat of the story's momentum, is how the Americans gradually develop a more nuanced (and thus more painful) view of their role in Afghanistan. This happens over days of watching the brave young woman in her cart in the desert waiting to bury her brother. Her presence and her demand for a particular kind of righteousness brings out an answering yearning for righteousness in many of the soldiers.
In this sad tale, even the "old man," the commander-captain, is not yet thirty. This is, in the end, like so many war stories, about boys facing the incoherence and immediacy of our wars.
--Meredith Sue Willis
Lisa J. Parker's lovely first collection of poems. It's a wonderful mix of sensual memories of growing up with Southern Appalachian roots and an extended mountain family and the pain of leaving home, even if you want to. There are many wonderful pieces, including one about snapping beans with her grandmother and one about her father dying from black lung. This latter poem, "Sounding," is a real knock-out, juxtaposing the man's agonal breathing and the coal miners' technique for knocking on the mine's ceiling to see if it's about to collapse. She writes extremely well of Appalachians, herself and others, going out into the world, and there is a special section about her time in New York City which coincided with the attacks on the World Trade Center.
It is a highly sophisticated collection that is also highly readable.
It's published by the invaluable Motes Books.
Here’s what I love: a page-turning mystery written in beautiful language! And that’s not the only pairing that Laura Bentley provides in her thriller, The Silver Tattoo: a stalker following a lovely, intelligent woman across the stunning landscape of Ireland; lost love and the desire to move beyond sorrow; friendships forming amidst terror.
As a poet, Bentley has finely tuned language to her command as she expertly builds fear throughout the story. Beginning with an ominous event—a beautiful butterfly is trapped on sticky tape and affixed to her bathroom mirror—Leah, a student at Ireland’s famous Trinity College, flees from Dublin to the beautiful and dangerous Cliffs of Moher, on the west side of Ireland. Here, rather than tranquility Leah hopes to find, danger and fear escalate. A strange woman who calls herself Rowan (the rowan is a meaningful tree in Ireland, which is supposed to protect you from witchcraft and enchantment) tries to push Leah off the Cliffs (a 700 foot drop!). From that point, Leah intensifies her search for clues as to why she was a target of this strange woman and who on earth is stalking her and why.
Bentley moves the story along with not only mystery and intrigue, but also the challenge of thought-provoking life issues and emotions. Readers learn that Leah is fleeing more than danger; she’s also fleeing her husband, Conor, a bedridden victim of a car accident. Leah tries to rebuild her life and begins with continuing her studies at Trinity. Close friend Ferdy back in America, seems to be the one who is loyal to Conor and visits him faithfully, reporting to Leah Conor’s condition. Leah is grateful, but Ferdy also provides a reminder of how she is not the wife Connor deserves. How can someone live with guilt, move on, and flourish despite it?
In thinking about other West Virginia writers who wrote in the thriller genre, this story reminds me of the chilling ride created by Davis Grubb in Night of the Hunter. A knuckle-biter that builds continual fear, The Silver Tattoo creates the same kind of “look over your shoulder as you never know who’s going to be gaining on you,” feeling.
This passage gives a glimpse of the poetic language Bentley is known for:
“They walked down a dirt road that paralleled a rushing stream where bright green watercress skimmed its shimmering surface. After about a half mile, they stopped to listen to a croaking bullfrog and surveyed a large man-made pond thick with cattails; metallic dragonflies hovered overhead, darting to and fro in the now hot morning sun. Spring had gone directly to summer this year—no transition. In a far meadow, they spotted two young deer. As Leah and Conor approached, the deer raised their heads and froze, starting straight into the intruders’ eyes. After a couple of minutes, the deer cautiously moved back toward a salt lick.
‘Is that the Eighth Wonder?’ she whispered.
‘No, that’s an everyday wonder.’”
As readers, that’s what we all need: wonder. Bentley delivers with her fabulous combination: a thrilling, intelligent, and beautifully written story and leads us along with frightened Leah as she discovers the dark secret as to why she’s being stalked.
Oh, and the meaning of “the silver tattoo”? You’ll find out!
Interview with Marlen Bodden, author of The Wedding Gift reviewed above: http://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/the-wedding-gift-293312.html
Phyllis Moore points us to some Political Poetry online: at The WebTheater: http://thewebtheater.com/2013/07/videopoetry-boom-boom-and-those-blasted-mountains/ -- "Boom Boom" the video, poetry by Crystal Good.
Are you interested in an online in-the-cloud word processor that sounds simple and intuitive (and free)? Read about Yarny: http://www.pcworld.com/article/2039649/review-get-your-writing-done-with-yarny-a-cloud-based-distraction-free-writing-environment.html#tk.nl_down
Kobobooks.com who, as competitors of Amazon, also claim to offer "millions of free books."
In his July blog post, John Birch recalls the night when the first "doodle bugs," the Nazi's pilotless flying bombs, came crashing into Southeast England. Go to JohnBirchLive.blogspot.com -- a growing collection of nearly 30 short stories, articles and essays.
See http://www.grassrootswomenproject.org/ for general information, and an August 2013 only call for submissions to The Notebook: http://www.grassrootswomenproject.org/the-notebook.html
IF YOU'RE IN NORTHERN NEW JERSEY....There are regular, excellent, free programs and peer workshops, many at the Montclair Library and environs. To get the monthly announcements, send an e-mail request to Carl Selinger at firstname.lastname@example.org .
RECOMMENDED BY BACKCHANNEL:
Backchannel says "Wow, this review sent me for a loop:" http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/17/son-philipp-meyer-review -- "What a great-sounding new novel!!!" ...and also recommends Ben Fountain's stories http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/29/brief-encounters-che-guevara-review and a novel by Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/29/tomorrow-be-twenty-mabanckou-review
And finally: " If this ain't Politerature... I don't know what is: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/27/vida-doble-arturo-fontaine-review --- "an intense sounding book!"
Y.A. and Middle Grade Intensive Writers' Workshop Saturday, October 12 in Brooklyn. Take a look here, and also at the sponsoring business, Paper Lantern Lit Story Architects. They have an interesting alternative to writing young adult and middle grade novels on spec.
On June 20, 2013, the Poet Laureate of West Virginia, Marc Harshman, read excerpts from his wonderful long poem "A Song for West Virginia" to celebrate the Sesquicentennial Celebration of the state.
New book by Mary Akers: BONES OF AN INLAND SEA: STORIES available from http://www.press53.com/biomaryakers.html . Says National Book Award winner Andrea Barrett, "In Mary Akers' stories, as complexly intertwined as the branches of a coral reef, her passionate characters engage both each other and a richly detailed, vital physical world. An impressive achievement."
Phyllis Moore draws our attention to a reprint of original reporting on the Hatfield-McCoy feud, writing that probably was very important in creating the Appalachian stereotype of the fight' and feudin' .
Barbara Crooker has a new poem online at http://www.voicesdelaluna.com/selectpoems.html. Her website is www.barbaracrooker.com.
MountainWhispers.com Audiobooks and Ross Ballard present their 15th audio book project, an adaptation of Lee Maynard's cult classic SCREAMING WITH CANNIBALS, which will officially be released July 4th. They say, "Make sure the kiddies are in bed before you crank up the escapades of Crum's very own Jessie Stone. (Contains some Adult language and graphic scenes.)!"
Don't forget to get on this list for regular notices about open submissions at various literary journals and presses: CRWROPPS-B@yahoogroups.com
Normandi Ellis is teaching the following workshop (go to listed website for more information): JOURNAL TO THE SELF SEPT 9 - NOV 11 $200 Register with the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning .
Beach Writers Talk Law at Jessie Creek Winery: Sunday, Oct. 27, the First Annual Beach Writers Autumn Retreat will take place at the picturesque Jessie Creek Winery, 1 N. Delsea Drive in Cape May Court House, NJ. This one-day seminar is a satellite of North Wildwood Beach Writers Conference held in June every year. The Retreat complements the Conference's focus on writing and publishing with the next step—protecting your rights as an author. Register by Sept. 30 and pay only $125 for the entire day. After Sept. 30 the registration fee is $150 Visit nwbwc.com for all the details and registration form. You can also e-mail questions to email@example.com.
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 largest unionized bookstore in America has a webstore at Powells Books. Some people prefer shopping online there to shopping at Amazon.com. An alternative way to reach Powell's site and support the union is via http://www.powellsunion.com. 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 .
WHERE TO FIND BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS NEWSLETTER
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 Amazon.com" above) that sells online at http://powellsbooks.com.
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. Kobobooks.com sells books for independent brick-and-mortar bookstores.And libraries now lend e-books too!.
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