How do we choose the
books we read? Some people depend on the blandishments of advertising and
public relations, and others turn to suggestions from friends or to reviews
in the commercial media. The new electronic technologies are making even more
books available to us: old books, new books, lost classics, and a welter of
self-published and small press books of vastly differing quality. In a recent
column in the MORGANTOWN (WV) DOMINION POST, my friend Norman Julian wrote
about the new technologies, describing electronic books and the opportunities
of print-on-demand. He described companies that are making a tidy profit by
bringing out books by amateur writers and non-profit small publishers who
are making available professional work that has been ignored by the commercial
But we are still left
with the question: how to choose among all these books?
This newsletter is
one reader/writer's first small attempt to expand the choices by sharing some
of her enthusiasms. You are receiving this newsletter because you are on an
email list of about 150 people I have gleaned from my personal and professional
connections. I'm going to be sending this out four to six times a year to
tell about books I've encountered that I believe deserve a wide readership.
This is not meant to be a full-scale review: it is rather a highly personal,
even idiosyncratic selection that will focus on old books, reprinted books,
and small press books. The choices will no doubt show my biases in favor of
thick books, books from the Appalachian region, books with a political sensibility,
certain books by women, and books by people of all genders and political persuasions
who write with wit, grace, and inspiration.
If you have friends
you think might like to be included, they can subscribe by sending a blank
email to Readerbooksfirstname.lastname@example.org. To be removed from the list, simply
send a blank email to Readerbooksemail@example.com. I hope in time to
expand the discussion to include other people's reactions as well as suggestions
for more places to find important books you have missed.
In this first newsletter,
I am going to make brief recommendations of two Second World War books. One
recreates the physical and psychological destruction of the city of Rome;
the other tells the story of a young Jewish refugee in America.
HISTORY: A NOVEL by
Elsa Morante, was first published in Italian in 1974, then translated into
English. Long, dense, and sad, HISTORY is about poor citizens of Rome whose
homes are bombed, lives disrupted, children and pets killed. It is a powerful,
beautiful, and sometimes funny book. One of its delights is that dogs communicate
as fluently as people, and are in many ways better adapted to life under wartime
fascism. The effect of war on everyday people, in everyday life, has probably
never been better presented: Morante says to us: this feverish nightmare is
realistic when war comes to your home town.
GIRL IN MOVEMENT by
Eva Kollisch is a memoir, a young woman's story set in the United States where
no battles take place. The author, a retired professor of German language
and literature, came to the U.S. as a teenager fleeing Hitler. In a search
of belonging and rational understanding of the world, she joined a small left-wing
political party and spent the war years experimenting with Marxism, factory
work, making love, getting married, running away, and learning about the limits
and depths of friendship.
These books create
very different worlds from those famous Second World War novels by James Jones,
Norman Mailer, and Joseph Heller, but they take us where we have very likely
never traveled before– which is one of the chief reasons that I, for one,
Norman Julian's article is
available online. Eva Kollisch's GIRL IN MOVEMENT can be ordered from Glad
Day Books, 1-888-874-6904, P.O. Box 699, Enfield, NH 03748. New copies of
Elsa Morante's HISTORY: A NOVEL are available from your local bookstore or
online at Barnes & Noble.
Two good online sources for used books are Bibliofind and Advanced Book Exchange. http://www.bibliofind.com
am not recommending Amazon.com because of its efforts to stop employees from
bettering their working conditions by forming a union.
The one thing I didn't expect
to be doing was sending a retraction so soon!
However– I was informed by a
reader that the employees at Amazon.com DO NOT want Amazon.com boycotted!
In fact, according to the Communications Workers of America, the Amazon
employees are "committed to the company's success and...want this season
to be the most profitable holiday that the company has ever seen." So, buy
from Amazon, and if you want to support the employees, when your order confirmation
arrives via e-mail, hit "reply" and send the customer service representative
This mini-newsletter also gives
me the opportunity to pass along two more places to look for book recommendations.
One reader of BOOKS FOR READERS Newsletter # 1 recommended what she described
as "a site created/run by a couple of Yale girls who work in publishing
and love books and reading." It is very lively and colorful (especially
compared to the email format of this newsletter!). Try Chick
Also, while I wouldn't ordinarily
be promoting barnesandnoble.com (but at least I can be fair and recommend
Amazon.com as well), I did hear from a former student who has the enviable
job of being Literature Editor and Reviewer for barnesandnoble.com. So if
you are at their site, take a look at his picks and opinions.
Meanwhile, Happy 2001 to all,
and I promise no more BOOKS FOR READERS Newsletter this year
# 3 January 2001
This past year I read two books
that are almost exact opposites– except in one essential way: they both
invited me into worlds I would never have encountered without them. I believe
this is one of the most important reasons we read– and perhaps literature's
most truly ethical function: to carry us from our familiar world to someone
else's. This imaginative leap into another heart or culture is necessary
for empathy for those unlike us– and thus is at the root of both charity
and progressive politics.
One of the books is a new one,
Sarah, by J.T. LeRoy, a young West Virginia native who now lives in San
Francisco. A short first novel, it is set in the back lots of the barren
gas station-restaurant truck stops of the Interstate highway system. Here
pimps of various degrees of kindheartedness and brutality run stables of
prostitutes of all genders, primarily servicing truck drivers. The main
character is a boy just reaching puberty whose mother, a prostitute and
addict, leaves him. He wants her, or someone else, to take care of him.
He yearns for kind human touch. He appropriates his mother's clothes and
name. Predictably, as all the people in this world are involved in the sex
trade, he becomes a prostitute too. For awhile, he also becomes a sort of
good luck charm or captive god. Then, as his freshness fades, he again becomes
a prostitute, and an addict. The wonder of this claustrophobic little book
is how wide a range of human character and human behavior can be portrayed
on a small canvas of sex and yearning.
Also set in a tiny, incredibly
closed world is The Tale of Genji. This novel has been read for a thousand
years and is considered to be one of the national treasures of Japanese
literature. Written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu around 1000 C.E. in the Japanese
vernacular (men did their writing in the Chinese language), it is available
in several translations. I read an excellent one by Edward G. Seidensticker
in two fat volumes. To read Genji is to have a dizzying glimpse into foreign
belief systems and patterns of behavior. The novel centers on the life of
an illegitimate son of a Japanese emperor. Genji secretly and illicitly
fathers another emperor and supports a vast household of women, whose lives
are the marrow of the novel. This ancient royal court, while religiously
and ceremonially central to its culture, was remote from its own empire,
and even remote from the actual exercise of political power. Instead of
business or politics, men and women make art the guiding principle of their
lives, and make their daily lives a form of art. They arrange musical parties
at dawn and have poetry writing contests. The women dye silks and have competitions
over who can create the most subtle scent.
The estimable and lovable Genji
adopts a beautiful little girl in order to train her in all the arts. He
then takes her to his bed and makes her his chief consort. To plunge into
the world of Genji is a large reading commitment: it is a world you have
to develop a taste for, will spend weeks, if not months, exploring. Once
you've developed this particular taste, however, you'll never see your own
culture as quite so natural and normal as you did before. In the world of
the Shining Prince as in the world of lot lizard prostitutes in Sarah, people
are also like us: striving to succeed, to do right, to win the support and
esteem of their fellows.
J.T. LEROY has an amusing website where you can buy genuine raccoon penis
bones if you are so inclined. He guarantees that they are all from road
kill— and there's a photo to prove it. The address is http:// www.jtleroy.com
In general, unless told otherwise, I'm going to feel free to quote some
of what people say in response to these Newsletters. In response to Newsletter
#2's recommendation of HISTORY: A NOVEL, Ingrid Hughes writes: "I disagreed
with you-- I thought it was plodding, and diligently got about half way
through before I undiligently got too bored."
But Ardian Gill says, "I read
HISTORY A NOVEL many years ago and agree it's a splendid book. If you haven't
read [Morante's] ARTURO'S ISLAND, you'll enjoy that too."
Deborah Reed recommends "Patty
Friedman's new one, ODDS, (from Counterpoint Press), which got nothing less
than a rave review in [the] NY TIMES BOOKS IN BRIEF, Silas House's CLAY'S
QUILT, (from Algonquin), [which] will be released in March, and AQUAMARINE
by Carol Anshaw (from Mariner Press), a most unusual novel about choices
and one I think you'd flip over. The craft is so damn good."
Newsletter # 4 February 2001
Note to Readers: If your email
server doesn't give you all of this newsletter, please read it online at
http://www.topica.com/lists/Readerbooks. Click on READ MESSAGES or READ
CURRENT MESSAGES. Note to those receiving BOOKS FOR READERS for the first
time: This newsletter is not meant to be a full-scale review, but rather
a personal selection from my reading, focusing on old books, reprinted books,
and small press books. For past Newsletters, go to http://www.topica.com/lists/Readerbooks.
This month's books were given
or lent to me by family members during the past holiday season. They center
on father-son relationships. My husband gave me the new Homer Hickam, THE
COALWOOD WAY. If you are from West Virginia, you probably know Hickam's
book ROCKET BOYS, and others may have heard of the movie made from that
book, OCTOBER SKIES. The new book picks up with many of the same characters
and their wonderful natural voices, but it appears to have been constructed
largely of out-takes from the first book. It is an unapologetically rosy
view of a mid-twentieth-century coal mining town. It ends with more climaxes,
tied-up loose ends, and tear-jerking reunions than any other five books.
The runaway pet squirrel comes back, and Company and Union families join
together for a sentimental Christmas pageant. Indeed, throughout the book,
there is a tendency to remember fondly a system that has often led to suffering
and ecological disaster.
Still, Hickam knows where to
find the heartstrings, including mine, and he plucks away: the struggles
of the rocket building younger son to get his mine foreman father's attention
have a timeless quality. If you want a tougher-minded view of the West Virginia
coal mining region and its history, I would recommend Denise Giardina's
historical novels, STORMING HEAVEN and THE UNQUIET EARTH.
The second father-son book has
been on my "To Read" list for a long time, and my sister finally mailed
me her copy from California. I dipped in, felt the powerful undertow of
a Really Good Novel, and was pretty much lost to further communication for
two days. Justly beloved, Chaim Potok's THE CHOSEN gives what I consider
some of the quintessential satisfactions of realistic novels: an unfamiliar
world is opened up; a familiar structure (in this case the coming of age
story) is made specific and concrete; family and group relationships are
explored; and all of the above appear in a context of real world events.
The exotic world here is Jewish Orthodoxy in Brooklyn, New York, around
the time of the Second World War. The historical background is the Holocaust
in Europe and the creation of the State of Israel. In the foreground is
a nuanced comparison of a Hasidic community and a more secular Orthodox
one. Intimately close are two families, that of the narrator, Reuven, and
his Hasidic friend Danny. Reuven lives with his father, a scholar who wants
him to be an observant Jew and also a citizen of the world. This is a tender
relationship, full of discussion and reading and tea drinking. Contrasted
to it is Danny's life as the heir apparent of a charismatic survivor of
European pogroms who leads a sect of zealous Hasidim. The novel centers
on the intellectual as well as emotional struggles between Reuven and Danny,
and between Danny and his father. Intellectual, religious, and political
passions are all part of the gripping drama. From the opening baseball game
won by the Hasidic yeshiva team through the boys' college years, the war,
and the birth of Israel, everything comes together to give enormous reading
Keep in mind that many individuals
have set up small personal bookstores on the Web that fulfill orders immediately
through the big online stores. An interesting one run by Jone Johnson Lewis
is organized around her areas of special interest (she is an Ethical Culture
leader and Unitarian Universalist minister), including world religions,
spirituality, women's issues, ethical issues, and more. Her bookstore can
be found at: http://jjsbooks.com/books/whojj.htm
FURTHER READING Since the last
newsletter, I've read two more books recommended by readers of this Newsletter:
Elsa Morante's Arturo's Island, and Carol Anshaw's Aquamarine. Arturo's
Island is a gritty story about a lonely boy who worships his mostly absent
father, then falls into a kind of love with a new stepmother who is only
a year older than he is. Throughout, major players are also a rundown rambling
villa and a brilliantly lighted island near Naples. Aquamarine is a tour
de force that passes with flying colors one of my tests for a good novel:
Does it make me want to write? This one is about the results of choices,
and it could become a whole new genre structured around the idea that an
important moment in a person's life could lead to totally different futures–
indeed, alternate realities.
BOOKS RECEIVED West Virginia native Victor Depta has a new book out from
his Blair Mountain Press. The book, Prepare a Room, is a sophisticated narrative
poem about varieties of physical and spiritual love. It is set in the mountains,
and it, as well as his other books, can be found at: http://www.blairmtp.com
This issue of the Books for Readers
newsletter is primarily to supplement the last one by sharing some suggestions
from readers. Don't forget, even though you can't send responses to the
whole list, I am taking the liberty– unless told otherwise– of passing along
your suggestions and responses!
For example, Kathy Flaxman writes,
" I just wanted to say that I agreed with you about THE CHOSEN– read it
for the first time a couple of years ago and loved it. Recently read THE
LADIES' AUXILIARY– about the Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis--a lot
lighter than THE CHOSEN, but interesting."
And Jone Johnson Lewis says,
"I've just finished TALES OF GOOD AND EVIL, HELP AND HARM -- Philip Hallie
-- and it is very thought-provoking. One of the best books I've read in
a few years."
Pat Arnow tells me that she
is enjoying the "newsletter, hearing about familiar and unfamiliar authors.
I've had great luck with books lately, reading one after another that I
like a lot. MOON TIGER by Penelope Lively, an English novel about a woman
who was a correspondent in Egypt in WWII, and now she is an old woman in
bed dying, talking about writing a history of the world. It ends up being
a history of herself in the world, and she's probably not writing it but
thinking it, but she says some of it out loud, and the patronizing nurse
thinks she is simply raving. The nurse tells the doctor about it, wonders
if this old woman might have actually been someone once. And the doctor,
as he's flipping through the chart that notes her physical history, says,
yes, she was probably somebody. It's killer good. "WAITING by Ha Jin, a
love story in the Cultural Revolution in China, about a man who never quite
allows himself to be fully committed, engaged, satisfied with the gifts
he has, making a hobby of ambivalence. Stayed up all Saturday night finishing
it. "I also liked PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf. It's this very spare prose, perfect
for the sense of place, the high plains of Eastern Colorado. It's set in
a fictionalized town that is modeled from the very town where I spent a
year near the Kansas-Nebraska border, barren, tumbleweeds, so desolate and
empty it's magnificent. He captures it perfectly."
BOOKS RECEIVED AND NOTED
West Virginia native Victor Depta has a new book out from Blair Mountain
Press. The book, PREPARE A ROOM, is a sophisticated narrative poem set in
the mountains about varieties of physical and spiritual love. It, as well
as his other books, can be found at: http://www.blairmtp.com.
Here are two books I haven't
read that are published through the Random House-XLibris print-on-demand
arrangement. The first one, by Jim Gibons, can be found at http://www.Xlibris.com/LamarsRebellion.html.
LAMAR'S REBELLION , says Jim, is about Memphis, the Cold War, and Rock ‘n
Roll in 1960.
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 about 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 your public library and your local independent bookstore.
To buy books online, I often go first to Bookfinder or Alibris. Bookfinder has a feature that 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 good source for used and out-of-print books is All Book Stores at http://www.allbookstores.com/ .
Take a look also at 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, get free books at the Gutenberg Project-- most classics, and other things as well. Libraries now lend e-books too!
RESPONSES TO THIS NEWSLETTER
Please send responses and suggestions directly to Meredith Sue Willis at MeredithSueWillis@gmail.com. Unless you instruct otherwise, your responses may be edited for length and published in this newsletter.
#146 Henry Adams AGAIN! #145 Henry Adams, Darnell Arnoult, Jaimy Gordon, Charlotte Brontë #144 Carter Seaton, NancyKay Shapiro, Lady Murasaki Shikibu #143Little 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;The Professor and the Madman; 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. #134Daniel 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. #131The Help; J. McHenry Jones, Reamy Jansen, Jamie O'Neill, Michael Chabon.
#130 Lynda Schor, Ed Myers, Charles Bukowski, Terry Bisson, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism #129Baltasar and Blimunda; the Underground Railroad; Navasky's Naming Names, new and recommended small press and indie books. #128 Jeffrey Sokolow on Histories and memoirs of the Civil Rights Movement #127Olive 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 #124Cloudsplitter, 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 #115Adam 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 #108The Animal Within; The Ground Under My Feet; King of Swords #107The Absentee; Gorky Park; Little Scarlet; Howl; Health Proxy #106Castle Rackrent; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; More on Drown; Blindness & more #105Everything 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 #101My Brilliant Career, The Scarlet Letter, John Banville, Never Let Me Go #100 The Poisonwood Bible, Pamela Erens, More Harry P. #99 Jonathan Greene on Amazon.com; Molly Gilman on Dogs of Babel #98 Guest editor Pat Arnow; more on the Amazon.com 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 #93Kristin Lavransdatter, House Made of Dawn, Leaving Atlanta #92Death 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 #87Wings 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 #78The 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 #74In 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 #67The Medici #66Curious
Incident,Temple Grandin #65 Ingrid Hughes on Memoir #64 Boyle, Worlds of Fiction #63The Namesame #62Honorary Consul; The Idiot #61Lauren'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 #55Addie,
Hottentot Venus, Ake #54 Scott Oglesby, Jane Rule #53 Nafisi,Chesnutt, LeGuin #52 Keith Maillard, Lee Maynard #51 Gregory Michie, Carter Seaton #50Atonement, Victoria Woodhull biography #49Caucasia #48Richard Price, Phillip
Pullman #47 Mid-
East Islamic World Reader #46Invitation to
a Beheading #45The Princess of Cleves #44 Shelley Ettinger: A Few Not-so-Great Books #43 Woolf, The Terrorist Next Door #42 John Sanford #41 Isabelle
Allende #40Ed 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
#25 On Libraries.... #24Tales of the
#23 Nonfiction, poetry, and fiction #22 More on Why This
Newsletter #21 Salinger, Sarah
Waters, Next of Kin #20 Jane Lazarre #19Artemisia 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
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 #5Tales 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