Meredith Sue Willis's
November 1, 2013
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Ohio University & Swallow Press has just done us all a great favor by bringing out a beautiful new paperback edition of the Janet Lewis trilogy of novels based on legal cases from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: THE WIFE OF MARTIN GUERRE, THE TRIAL OF SOREN QVIST, and THE GHOST OF MONSIEUR SCARRON. The first two are quite short, and the last one longer. All are historical novels with plots provided by an 1873 law book given to Lewis by her husband, poet and critic Yvor Winters: FAMOUS CASES OF CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE WITH AN INTRODUCTION ON THE THEORY OF PRESUMPTIVE PROOF by Samuel M. Phillipps. Lewis sticks to the basic facts of the cases, but is really interested in what the cases and the people can show about society and human behavior. The novels are all remarkable for how they seem completely without anachronism. Lewis creates the illusion of real motivations of real people in another century. There are no feisty proto-feminists in rural sixteenth century France for us to identify with. Rather, she brings us closer to then.
Bertrande Guerre, the heroine of probably Lewis's most famous work, the slight but powerful THE WIFE OF MARTIN GUERRE, has a husband who goes away and then comes home many years later. She is deeply happy to have him back and they are both more physically passionate than before he went away. It is like a different, better relationship, and he is like a different man: gentler, more talkative. In fact, Bertrande gradually becomes convinced he is precisely that-- a different man--not Martin, but someone pretending to be Martin. Lewis skillfully builds up Bertrande's growing conviction: it has a quality of a horror story, a stranger in her bed. Is she crazy? Is she sinning? She determines that she cannot continue in this way. Most people in the 21st century would probably say, What the heck, it's all good- a loving man who is an improvement on his predecessor? Why upset the applecart? But Lewis convinces us that Bertrande's turning away from him is righteous, if brutally painful. Nothing good comes of this righteousness, and yet the catastrophic ending that is the result of Bertrande's moral rigor is also a sign of her personal independence.
THE TRIAL OF SOREN QVIST likewise centers on a moral rigidity that is unfamiliar and even repugnant to a modern reader. Again a good person does what he sees as the right thing, and he and his family suffer terribly. You know from the beginning what has happened– that a man has been executed for a murder no one in the small Danish community believes he committed. Yet circumstantial evidence points to him. By the end, he has convinced himself he is indeed guilty, and would rather die with a good conscience, forgiven by God, than struggle to live. And once again, against all odds, the twenty-first century reader reluctantly gets it, understand the culturally and religiously alien. Qvist embraces his own guilt, refuses to be rescued by his children, and goes to the block with dignity and faith.
The final novel of the trilogy, THE GHOST OF MONSIEUR SCARRON is more ambitious in scope. It is peopled with citizens of all estates, including King Louis IV himself and his morganatic wife Madame De Maintenon. The main characters, however, are lower bourgeois, the household of an honest book binder named Jean Larcher. Again, Lewis is able to give warmth to an overly rigid character. Larcher is stiff with those he loves and opposes his son's desire to see the world.
Most of the story focuses on Larcher's wife Marianne, who younger than he, efficient, hard-working, pretty, intelligent, and supportive of their son's aspirations. Young men are the disturbing factor here: first the son, and then his replacement in the shop, Paul Damas, a young book binder who comes from the country fleeing a complication with his last master's wife.
Without her son, in the close quarters of seventeenth century dwellings, Marianne and Paul begin an affair. The crime that is officially punished, however, is not adultery or the theft that Paul commits in order to run away with Marianne. Rather, he leaves a packet of scurrilous pamphlets making fun of the King and Mme de Maintenon in Larcher's house. Larcher, distraught, calls in the police-- but the theft is ignored, the pamphlets are discovered, and from there, bad luck and bad actions lead from one disastrous result to another. It's all very sad and feels at once inevitable and surprising. The novel isn't as neat as the two smaller books, and I don't love the final events as much as what went before, but I heartily recommend all three books. I've never read historical fiction like this: just the right amount of researched detail– what people drank, how they dealt with a toothache, how often they changed shirts, what the insanely public levée of the king was like (literally getting up: dressing, breakfasting, washing, everything with the court in attendance!).
For more about these books, look at http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/2013/08/21/9ff4a1fc-090c-11e3-9941-6711ed662e71_story.html and at http://thesecondpass.com/?p=5237 . Also, there is a good NEW YORK TIMES obituary of Janet Lewis from 1998 that gives a good outline of her life: , see http://www.nytimes.com/1998/12/05/arts/janet-lewis-99-poet-of-spirit-and-keeper-of-the-hearth-dies.html .
--Meredith Sue Willis
I read Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs after seeing the Vera Famiga movie based on it. I would especially recommend the book to anyone who wants some understanding of a certain extreme kind of Christian fundamentalism. It does not make fun of religious experiences or of the human need to be a part of something Big with cozy corners. Actually, in the book anyhow, the Zealots come across better than the narrator's early friends out in the world as she leaves her church group. The new friends are narrow-minded writer types with assumptions and prejudices at least as big as the New Testament Christians.' But of course, Briggs doesn't go back to her chuch once she's out.
It isn't completely clear to me why she leaves. Part of it I think is that with the passage of years there is a loss of the thrill and passion. Also, the elders of her group in Iowa were right that a move to Arkansas without the support of the group would loosen their ties to the group. No one was watching closely, and she began to be aware of how her relationship with her husband was lacking sexual passion.
I found this really enriching: a very specific sense of what these particular true believers are about (especially these nuevo-hippy ones who actually read and studied the Bible, although nothing else).
The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw came up on a list of $1.99 kindle books Amazon advertises occasionally. I had known Shaw only as a name, a writer of big best sellers whose work got turned into TV series. Apparently much of his late work was of that popular, potboiler quality, but this first novel-- and he had a number of successful plays and short stories as well-- is definitely my favorite WWII fiction so far.
It is in many ways a lot of short stories-- complete, powerful incidents: the Jewish kid who has a fight with every big anti-semitic red neck in his company; the obnoxious, effete semi-intellectual whose life is in theater and clubs and beds. The story follows these two Americans plus one German, and the end is simply the moment at which all three come together in a forest after the liberation of a death camp. Two die and one lives. You figure something like this will be coming, but it works nicely to tie up the loose ends.
I have complaints-- the wildly pervasive sexism, which is not quite closely-enough embedded in character. Also, the German protagonist starts out complex but ends up two-dimensinally ideological. The Americans are not ideological, which seems to be evidence to Shaw of their goodness. One of the best points demonsrated in the book is how battle is embedded in a lot of non-battle. The soldiers are always deep in personal, individual reality, whatever else is happening. Death is random, in battle and out of it.
Issue # 164) which I just read this summer. This is a genre novel, tops of its kind, more like a noir film of the 50s than a contemporary novel, and yes, yes, the hero seems like a movie hero--he is a HERO!--and therefore not fleshed in the way you want, there is a formula, but oh, the writing for a genre novel, the moral complexity explored in a very accessible way, the minor characters, yes, they're great, but it is totally satisfying to me. Believe me, as a reader of the genre (and one who has published in it) this is really good writing, really good (if move-like dialogue), really does a lot with the formula. I rate it an A, for sure. More on this subject if you want to explore it (in talk). PS on Joseph Kanon - much more interesting to me than the snappy Elmore Leonard, much critically admired but whose view of the human condition is considerably truncated.
"About the Good German--some of it was astounding to me, particularly the brief scene where Emil tries to drown the hero towards the end, which showed the complexity of who Emil was how he hid and revealed himself. Yes, the minor characters were great, and the hero and Lena are color-ins. But who is the Good German. Or the Good American or Russian? I think you got the paperback version with George Clooney on the cover and I got a much earlier copy so I knew nothing of the movie. I'm sure that abetted both responses, yours and mine. I'd never heard of the author or the book before and thought I was discovering him myself."
Joel Weinberger on Moby DickMaybe I'm still not old enough for it, but Moby-Dick did not do it for me. It is extraordinarily long and for the most part extraordinarily boring. It mostly consists of a plodding plot and Melville expounding on his own personal theories of whales (most of which are pseudo-science, I might add). I'm sure there are deep metaphors and fascinating language somewhere deep in there, but I was too bored to appreciate it. The novel was a brutal trial for me to get through, and I only made it because of my obsession with finishing literature I've started.
So why give it 3 stars on Goodreads? Because the other 30% of the book is quite a good read. The first 125 pages or so are a fascinating portrait of the characters, community, and whaling culture of Nantucket.... It wasn't until after this, when they reach the ship, that the book really slows and the pseudo-science begins. Furthermore, the last 75 pages are action packed; I won't spoil anything, but you can probably guess why.
On the whole, I did not have a good time getting through the book. I suppose on the plus side, I can now tell my children to read Moby-Dick because, hey, I had to (okay, chose to, but who's counting).
(Image is from a wood cut by Rockwell Kent)
MSW on War and PeaceI did my once-a-decade reading of War and Peace. This is at least the third time, maybe more. I dug out my college notes on it from a Russian literature (in English translation!) class, and I was pleased that the notes were mostly background on Tolstoy's life and times. I like reading a classic like this from my present age and level of confidence (at least about some things). I can, for example, be honest about admitting how eccentric Tolstoy was. His theory of history is okay in flashes, as a kind of artist's world view, but his determined effort to systematize it was just boring. There's a hilarious Goodreads review of War and Peace that compares T. to a beloved, charming, entertaining house guest who every so often goes off on a crazy rant, especially right after he has finally said he's leaving and everyone has bidden farewell-- then stays for one more marathon rant.
On the other hand there is nothing anywhere that touches those war scenes (and peace scenes): Pierre standing around trying to understand war and getting shot at; Prince Andrei learning to die but not to live. There's the wonderful burning of Moscow and the suffering prisoners of war and the Russians harrying the fleeing French. There is Natasha's attempted elopement and the various drunken debauches.
For many readers, there is also the brutal disappointment at then end when the brilliant sprite Natasha becomes thick and bursting with milk and jealousy. Her brother Nicholas moves from the epitome of attractive, heedless youth to serious farmer and grumpy father. This time I particularly like a character I hardly even remembered, the princess Maria, fanatic religious sister of Andrei who ends up still religious but with a modicum of happiness with her husband and family. She becomes calmer and attains a kind of grace through life experience.
There are so many wonderful characters, so many great scenes. I suppose Tolstoy's theories were necessary for him, but it's certainly not why you read the book. You read the book because he loves his characters, loves life, and tries so hard to make everything real, and also new, as if he wants us to see it for the first time since the creation of the world.
He doesn't love flesh, or pretends he doesn't-- has a disgust for society women who expose their breasts and disdains Napoleon's plumpness and small white hands. His case is for life force, for the flame burning in us. And the horses and dogs are as alive as the people, and yet never anthropomorphized, always horses and dogs. What a book.
(Image is from a painting called "The Battle of Borodino Has Ended!")
Aaron Smith's poem "Like Him" was on poem-a-day from poetry.org.
Barbara Crooker on Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac AGAIN!!
Analogies for Time by Jeremy Osner is a small digital book of excellent poems. This is an electronic chapbook that begins with the title poem, which is a wonderful meditation on time and how we swim and float in it: "Think of time as a river of events/think of time simply as a river...." and of course as the analogy gets increasingly concrete, things fall apart and reform. It ends with a celebration of being in the moment. It's a brief book, a narrow glance into an extremely interesting mind, not conventional but certainly not unconventional for the sake of making a splash:
The dead of 9/11
and the crater they fell into long since filled
with detritus of 21st C. dreams in America
and ragged strips of newsprint
without any columns of ink,
they're blank and they're torn, and the
names of the dead
scroll by beneath the image
of America.Osner, a computer programmer with a long-standing interest in languages, sees the structure of things the rest of us only glance at the surface of. He also has an interesting blog at http://www.readin.com/ .
There is a free download at http://readin.com/analogiesfortime.html , or buy it (cheap!) on Amazon for Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/Analogies-for-Time-ebook/dp/B00FTQPGPY .
-- Science magazine says Literary Fiction is good for empathy and social skills: New York Times 10-4-13.
-- Do we remember more when we read print than e-books? Article from Time magazine.
Subscribers throughout the world will be able to browse through books and, if they choose, and read sample chapters, using any personal computer with a browser, an iPhone or iPad, e-readers and other mobile devices. Scribd CEO Trip Adler said. "For power readers, this is going to be like a dream come true, we think this could really change the book publishing's business model and change people's reading behaviour."
Take a look at http://www.scribd.com/subscribe.
See: www.JohnBirchLive.blogspot.com -- a growing collection of nearly 30 short stories, articles and essays.
IMAGES OF BANNED BOOKSGuardian readers's favorites: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/gallery/2013/sep/27/banned-books-readers-censored-pictures
If You're in Yellow Springs, Ohio...
Ed Davis is reading poetry on November 16, 2013: Learn more here.
The Hamilton Stone Review #29 Fall 2013
...... is now online at www.hamiltonstone.org/hsr29.html . Editors for this issue are Fiction: Lynda Schor ; Poetry: Roger Mitchell ; and Nonfiction: Reamy Jansen. Poetry by Sarah Anderson, Nina Bennett, Roy Bentley, Ace Boggess, Doug Bolling, Craig Cotter, Mark DeCarteret, William Doreski, George Freek, Nels Hanson, Maureen Kingston, Tricia Knoll, Philip Kobylarz, Desmond Kon, David McAleavey, Bruce McRae, Karla Linn Merrifield, BZ Niditch, Holly Painter, Joyce Peseroff, Roger Pfingston, Brianna Pike, Tim Suermondt, Anne Whitehouse, Chelsea Whitton, and Leonore Wilson; Fiction by Rebecca Andem, Jack Dowling, Desirée Jung, Richard Kostelanetz, Robyn Ryle, Yong Takahashi, and John Duncan Talbird; and Nonfiction by David W. Ricker, Jerry Wemple, James Ferry, Terry Barr, and Jim Krosschell.
JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS'S LATESTSee review http://philadelphiareviewofbooks.com/2013/09/30/trembling-the-ropes-that-dangle-in-the-wings/
A BOOK ON TEACHING APPALACHIAPhyllis Moore directs us to this review of an interesting new book: http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2013/10/book-review-appalachia-in-the-classroom-teaching-the-region.html
A Poetry Magazine in Germany– in English!Poetry Salzburg Review publishes poems, translations, interviews, essays and reviews of recent collections of poetry. Our intention is to publish the best available writing from a variety of writers. See their website at http://www.poetrysalzburg.com/
Marsh Hawk PressFall 2013 books from Marsh Hawk Press: http://www.marshhawkpress.org/
NEW E-BOOK FROM LEE MAYNARD!Memory is life. Without memory, we are only what we are at that split second of time. Good or bad. Set in the underbelly of the pseudo-glitz of the streets of Santa Fe and based on generations of violent, local family history, CINCO BECKNELL is the story of a homeless man with no memory. Locked in the emptiness of his mind is a secret, a past, which will either keep him alive, or get him killed. As Cinco staggers through a dangerous journey of re-discovery, he is hunted by psychopaths who want to kill him, and he has no idea why; is shadowed by a woman who may keep him alive -- or not; and is finally helped by another woman who can bring back to him the light he looks for. If he can stay alive. But he is running out of time, and people around him are dying, always violently. Gradually, he begins to understand the true, brutal, nature of himself and of the darkness of his past. But it is a past, and a present, that he may never fully understand. http://www.amazon.com/Cinco-Becknell-ebook/dp/B00EI3Y0OC
CALLS FOR SUBMISSIONS WITH AN EMPHASIS ON LITERARY ESSAYS AND NONFICTION--GOT TRUTH? THE TRUTH ABOUT THE FACTSubmission Deadline: December 31, 2013 Submit via email: firstname.lastname@example.org .Published by Loyola Marymount University.
PITHEAD CHAPELPithead Chapel is a monthly online journal of short fiction and nonfiction seeking gutsy narratives up to 4,000 words, particularly essays (personal, memoir, lyric, travel, experimental, etc.). Learn more at www.pitheadchapel.com.
Don't forget to get on this list for regular notices about open submissions at various literary journals and presses: CRWROPPS-B@yahoogroups.com
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 email@example.com .
A NEW MAGAZINE IS LOOKING FOR CONTRIBUTIONSSanjay Agnihotri has a lovely new magazine, Local Knowledge. He is looking for work!– http://localknowledgemag.com/category/past-issues/
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.
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