Are your friends
asking what you want for a holiday gift? Are you racking your brains for
something to read on your winter vacation? Books-for-Readers readers and
I have LOTS OF SUGGESTIONS!
First, for me, the
dark-of-the-year time is when I curl up with Victorian Literature. It is
familiar, yet far away and long ago and gives me that pleasantly smug feeling
of knowing more than they did. This year, I'm reading Elizabeth Gaskell.
She is probably most famous for her sympathetic biography of Charlotte Brontë,
but I like her novel MARY BARTON (labor background), and I've just bought
RUTH (unwed motherhood). Politically speaking, Gaskell's approach is pretty
simple minded: Get All the Classes Together, and Love One Another Right
Now. On the other hand, she was castigated throughout her writing life for
unladylike sympathy and depiction of poverty and vice. So, even though Mary
Barton faints and goes into a decline after avowing her love in public,
she is still the one who takes moral and physical actions that save her
big strong male lover.
descriptions of the lives of the industrial poor of Manchester in the 1840's
are full of carefully drawn distinctions. Some families have reasonably
spacious and attractive houses and others are dying of typhus in crowded
holes stinking with offal and seeping sewage. Furthermore, the solvent poor
help the indigent poor rather than waiting around for charity, and the Chartist
movement, if not approved by Mrs. Gaskell, is at least given voice.
Now, on to your
suggestions: Naomi Freundlich writes, "I have been enjoying your newsletter
and have even read a few of the suggestions. I agree with you about novels
with political connotations being particularly interesting. I just finished
reading PALACE WALK by Naguib Mahfouz, and found it startlingly pertinent
to our recent interest in Islam and the Middle East. It is a drama about
a family living a very traditional life in Egypt right after W.W.I, but
it is also about the Egyptian rebellion against British occupiers and the
growth of nationalism there. It took me a while to finish, but I am very
happy I did."
Ardian Gill recommends
Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod's ISLANDS (the Canadian Maritimes) and
NO GREAT MISCHIEF.
Jo Kerr Hodara has
a pile of books next to her bed and is just finishing THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN
for a reading group discussion. She also suggests Kazuo Ishiguro's WHEN
WE WERE ORPHANS, W.G. Sebald's THE IMMIGRANTS, and Saramago's BALTASAR AND
Irene Tiersten has
been reading Barbara Kingsolver: "I just read THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara
Kingsolver. Although the country is different, the culture clash problem
is all too familiar in today's so-called religious battle. Religion is not
to blame; the people who do not understand that all religions are the same
under different clothing, or those who do and use religion to create conflict
and hatred, are the problem. The portraits of each character are rich and
poignant. I also read [her] PRODIGAL SUMMER which illuminates ecological
issues. Again, the human drama is powerfully drawn."
Allan Appel offers
three more suggestions: "There's my old favorite Steinbeck, IN DUBIOUS BATTLE,
about labor organizers. Obviously political but so passionate and real that
the "line" feels to this reader anyway totally integrated into the lived
experience. Then I just finished DEATH AND THE PENGUIN, by the Ukrainian
Andre Kurkov. Fabulous story of a guy who is so poor and lives in a Soviet
society so poor he finds solace in adopting a penguin deaccessioned from
the zoo because the zoo can no longer feed all its animals. He names the
penguin Misha and then he makes a mysterious friend, human, also named Misha,
so that each time the human friend appears, he refers to him as Misha non-penguin.
Charming and full of the political life of the times , and harsh and menacing
it is, but it's a family (and penguin) story. The Russians, of course, cannot
write a novel in the 20th century without it's being political. Oh yes,
Horace McCoy's THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? is also a favorite, 1930s
Depression story with brooding politics and dancing till you drop to survive."
"On the political
novel front," says Shelley Ettinger, "I read 1918 by Alfred Doblin, which
I thought was magnificent. It's the first book of his trilogy (I think the
other two are KARL AND ROSA, and BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ) about the failed
German revolution. Then there's 1916: A NOVEL OF THE IRISH REBELLION by
Morgan Llywelyn. It's not magnificent, in fact some of it made me cringe,
but I was glad I read it as a fictional introduction to that struggle. My
favorite proletarian novel of the U.S. 1930s is JEWS WITHOUT MONEY by Mike
Gold. I read LUISA DOMIC at your suggestion a couple months ago. Wasn't
crazy about it. [Dennison] came at the Chile issue from a bit too oblique
an angle for my taste. I just read the first volume of Proust. Part of my
on-again off-again dead-white-men-I-never-bothered-with-before project.
As with MOBY DICK last year, I was pleasantly surprised. Unlike Melville,
though, this writing actually thrilled me. Some of it knocked my socks off.
And finally, poet
Madeline Tiger sends enough suggestions for a whole separate newsletter!
In fact, I'm going to use a large chunk of what she wrote in the next issue,
which will be a memoir-nonfiction issue. Madeline writes, "Everything is,
of course, ‘political' in the larger sense. I've been listening to Jane
Austen on tape and Evelyn Waugh's BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, which I never read;
wow. Gorgeous as well as socio/analytical. And, by chance I chanced upon
A TOWN LIKE ALICE [Nevil Shute]. There are so many others on the list; e.g.,
Anna Quindlen's novel about the abused/escaping wife (not so brilliantly
written but very important, was it called BLACK AND BLUE? I forget, but
the impact was STRONG.)"
Rosa Luxemberg, Thomas Mann, Proust and Evelyn Waugh. We'll all have nightmares
about being attacked by marching hordes of books we promised to read.
MOORE'S WEST VIRGINIA LIST For those of you who would like to learn more
about the extensive literature of my home state West Virginia, send an email
to Phyllis Wilson Moore at Scoutdil@aol.com (guess her favorite novel!),
and ask her to put you on her list.
I am putting this
Newsletter together on a cold, dry First of January, 2002– a good time to
be guided by the past through reading books of memoir and biography. I recently
finished Arthur Kinoy's 1983 memoir RIGHTS ON TRIAL: THE ODYSSEY OF A PEOPLE'S
LAWYER. It is a lawyer's book, not a writer's, but Mr. Kinoy has been a
participant in many of the most important events of the American late twentieth
century. He began as a labor lawyer and became what he calls "a people's
lawyer." His causes have ranged from a last-ditch effort to save the lives
of the Rosenbergs to inventing legal strategies for fighting for voting
rights in Mississippi to the political defense of the Chicago Seven and
the defense of all of our rights against attacks by Richard Nixon and his
minions. In this moment when public conformity reigns supreme, it is a pleasure
to read the story of one of our elders who has spent his life working to
protect people with unpopular positions.
I also read NISA:
THE LIFE AND WORDS OF A !KUNG WOMAN by the late Marjorie Shostak. This book
lies somewhere between biography and anthropology. It is a beautiful collaboration
between an African bush hunter-gatherer and a literarily inclined western
woman. I love NISA for its insight into lives that are at once exotic and
wonderfully imaginable. The story Nisa told and Marjorie Shostak respectfully
transcribed and then read back to Nisa for her approval supports me in my
continuing effort to learn how to live.
has been reading memoir, and she expresses a fear that "the whole landscape
will be overrun with prose meanderings trying to find a shape and focus
and calling themselves new-genre'd." Even so, she has enthusiastic recommendations,
including "Alicia Ostriker's examination of the Old Testament overlaid with
her own family history (and some poetry) called THE NAKEDNESS OF THE FATHERS
: BIBLICAL VISIONS AND REVISIONS .... It's brilliant and of large, significant
Then of course
there's Toi Derricotte's landmark book THE BLACK NOTEBOOKS, concerning (her)
life right around here, here & now, since the 70's, including a chapter
on a writer's colony, a couple of chapters by her mother from her memoir
work of Black childhood in a country town outside New Orleans. "There's
a long list of new memoirs lately, of course; but just now I'm reading Robin
Hirsch's LAST DANCE AT THE HOTEL KEMPINSKI, subtitled ‘Creating Life in
the Shadow of History,' so your call for political titles absolutely converged
with this book-lying-at-my-elbow.... it's a collection of short vignettes
(that may have been written separately, as I know he's been reading things
of this sort at his performances over many years) that all go together to
make his memoir of growing up during WWII in London, son of German Jewish
emigres from Berlin. Trouble from being German. Trouble from being Jewish.
English stratifications of neighborhood, social life, public schools, university
entrance... and memories of what happened to the family and the extended
family over in Europe. Written in a light, often amusing style, but with
serious undertones and an appropriate conveyance of the stress and anguish
of living through those times. Robin....the owner/operator/emcee of the
Cornelia Street Café, comes out of lit and theater background, has often
performed; he showcases many writers (songwriters as well as fiction and
poetry) at his café, and it's interesting to learn how one of our own contemporary
heart-of-the-city, downtown, urbane urbanites gets at the question of fiction/history/
Madeline also likes
the work of the much-praised Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat. "And she so
young, doesn't she show the delicacy the honesty of how it is done!" Madeline
also "recently read the memoir of Frank Rich about his childhood-- Washington,
D.C. in the fifties and sixties, a cruel (but leftwing!) stepfather, a road
into theater passions.... Michael Heller (the poet) published his memoir
BLOOD ROOT last year; another tour de force, reaching back into Europe (Jewish
fragments of family history) and immigration and struggling life here. Well,
that's more historic than ‘political' I suppose... Mimi Schwartz, who teaches
writing at Stockton, has a new marriage memoir coming just now [THOUGHTS
FROM A QUEEN-SIZED BED], and a longer-viewed look at family history coming
soon re-examining the scenes of war and deportation and social relationships
in that time which many memories want to cover over."
Please let me know
what you are reading and thinking about your reading here in the depths
of winter. And don't forget, the solstice is over, so we have a little more
light each day.
SORROWS AND JOYS
Shelley Ettinger writes to remind us: "W.G. Sebald died in a car crash.
Have you read any of his books? Amazing, sad, deep, funny, weird and politically
progressive. I read THE RINGS OF SATURN last spring and adored it; last
week I tried to take out his new one, AUSTERLITZ, from the NYU library but
they only had it in German, so I bought THE EMIGRANTS to read over the holiday
break. What a bummer. This guy did worthwhile work." Then, a few days later,
Shelley emailed an announcement that her new story "My Second Family" was
just published in an online literary journal called COELACANTH, which can
be found at http://www.coelacanthmagazine.com.
January 22, 2002
Snow on the ground
here in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast– and lots of good books for curling
up beside the fire (or the radiator!). First, I want to suggest a brand
new novel by Joanna Torrey called HE GOES, SHE GOES. The book is tight and
intense, about the death of a father and how a daughter reacts by plunging
into ballroom dance classes. Dance becomes the stand-in for other relationships
as the narrator, her sister, and their mother– wonderful, witty, unhappy
characters– strive to get together to deal with the father's ashes. Equally
interesting are the people at the dance studio. I admire a kind of intelligent,
passionate sweatiness in this novel, and when it was over, I had the sensation
that I'd been danced across the floor by a skillful and trustworthy partner.
A book that was
suggested by several people last year was J.M. Coetzee's DISGRACE. My friend
Suzanne McConnell recommended it first, saying, "It's uncomfortable, paralleling
the deeply uncomfortable new roles of people and races in South Africa;
sex, class, and race are its topics though never of course as 'topics' but
totally through its characters, as well as aging, loss, tenderness, and
the creative process, the latter beautifully beautifully done....." I've
read the book now, too, and I want to join in recommending it. It touches
on serious conditions and experiences and also tells a gripping story. Coetzee
succeeds in doing exactly what he sets out to do: he explores a set of events
at a particularly dangerous moment of history from a middle-aged white man's
point of view. Black Africans and women are presented somewhat obliquely,
as perhaps intrinsically mysterious. It is a moving and powerful book, and
now I wish I could read the same story told from the other points of view.
A couple of months
ago, Kasamu Salawu suggested that I read Cynthia Ozick's stunning short
story "The Shawl." The story comes in a small volume (also called THE SHAWL)
united with a second, longer story, "Rosa," which is about the aftermath
of the first story. "The Shawl" takes place in a Nazi death camp and is
at once dry, precise, dreamlike and as explosive as a blow to the stomach.
"Rosa" is far more discursive and even humorous, set in Florida twenty-five
or thirty years later. It is about how a woman who has been exposed to the
extremity of the human condition lives on, perhaps twisted, but also exalted
Another idea comes
from Silas House: MOON WOMEN by Pamela Duncan. He describes it as "the story
of three generations of women all living under one roof. Ruth Ann Moon is
newly divorced when her 17 year-old daughter returns from a juvenile center
pregnant and abandoned by her baby's father. At the same time, Ruth Ann's
domineering mother, Marvelle, sinks into senile dementia and Ruth Ann takes
her in as well. It's one of the most hilarious and heartbreaking novels
I've ever read, and I think everyone would enjoy it very much. Duncan's
prose is beautiful and once I finished it, I missed the Moon family so badly
that I wanted to read it again (the sign of a really good book, I believe).
This is a debut novel from Duncan, a resident of North Carolina (and a former
student of Lee Smith), and Duncan really knows how to get under the skin
of her characters. One of the best examinations of a Southern family that
I have ever read."
And, by the way,
we should all be watching for Silas's next novel due out from Algonquin
In a very different
vein, Suzanne Gluck-Sosis says she has been doing reading that centers on
spiritual growth. She likes a series by Neale Donald Walsch called CONVERSATIONS
WITH GOD, FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD, and COMMUNICATION WITH GOD. She says, "I
love his concept of God and our role here on earth I could accept such a
God. This may seem strange coming from an Ethical Culturist/ Unitarian-Universalist
humanist being!" She is also reading Allegra Goodman and Tova Mirvis for
a Jewish book discussion group. Says Suzanne, "Think I'm revisiting my roots
to discover what kind of a Jew I am."
And finally, Kurt
Johnson, the well-known authority on butterflies who wrote, with Steven
L. Coates, NABOKOV'S BLUES: THE SCIENTIFIC ODYSSEY OF A LITERARY GENIUS
(See Newsletter # 6), sends a stanza from poet James Wright's book THE BRANCH
WILL NOT BREAK about "that place we all seek where we discover we are unbreakable
(of course it is ‘what is within us' that is unbreakable-- part of the mystery)."
In a pine tree,
A few yards from my window sill
A brilliant blue jay is springing up and down, up and down,
On a branch.
I laugh, as I see
him abandon himself
To entire delight, for he knows as well as I do
That the branch will not break.
Newsletter # 19
February 15, 2002
I remember some
years ago seeing an exhibit of paintings by women from 1550 to 1950 at the
Brooklyn Museum. I was thrilled to discover that there had been serious
women painters before the twentieth century. The artist who especially caught
my attention was the seventeenth century Italian, Artemisia Gentileschi.
I am hardly the
only person to be fascinated by her painting of a big muscular Judith beheading
Holofernes with the help of her serving woman. Adding to the intrinsic
excitement of the painting was the factoid that Holofernes was supposed
to have been modeled on the man convicted of raping Gentileschi when she
was seventeen. The transcripts for the rape trial are still extant, and
the painter's life as well as her art have become popular material for art
historians. I don't read a lot of art history, but I was intrigued by Gentileschi.
When I ran across a book called Artemisia: A Novel by Alexandra Lapierre,
I thought this was my chance to learn more without any effort. But– Avoid
this book! Lapierre apparently did a lot of reading and research, and her
novel is informative, but it is also really badly written. Lapierre seems
to think that all you have to do to create fiction is to make up scenes
of the heroine with her ample and mostly bare bosom heaving as she sighs
for her lovers.
The good news is
that one of the sources listed in Lapierre's bibliography is an infinitely
better book. This book, the good one, is Artemisia Gentileschi by
Mary D. Garrard (Princeton University Press). It isn't light, in tone or
physical weight, but it is rich with beautiful images and plates that allow
Gentileschi to speak for herself through her art. It also has a lot of black
and white pictures that show her work in relation other artists of her time,
and you learn, for example, that she was not the only Old Master who painted
Judith beheading Holofernes. The book has appendices with transcripts of
the rape trial (the artist– a teenager, remember!– had to undergo a torture
of her hands to prove her honesty). I think this was the book I wanted to
read all along, nonfiction, setting Artemisia in her time. It is not a bad
jumping off point for learning something about seventeenth century European
art in general. I bought the book online through one of the used and rare
book stores, reasonably priced considering all the pictures.
Reading these two
books set me to thinking about historical novels. I suppose to some extent,
all fiction is historical in that it is about the past (even if it happens
only last year), but I'm thinking more about novels set in times when the
writer did not live. Pat Barker's World War I trilogy is an example, and
I've just read José Saramago's Siege of Lisbon and Baltasar and
Blimunda, about which I may say more in a later newsletter. Do you have
a favorite historical novel to recommend? I'm looking for books that are
reasonably dependable in their presentation of the past but also give the
satisfaction of truly excellent fiction.
In general, unless told otherwise, I feel free to publish people's responses
to these Newsletters. For example, Carol Emshwriller writes: "I'm reading
the greatest book. At least so far. SERVANTS OF THE MAP by Andrea Barrett.
Just finished her story THEORIES OF RAIN. Best thing I've read in a long
time and unique and odd, yet old fashioned and conventional at the same
time. What I like best are her rhythms. I can't articulate what I mean.
It isn't exactly rhythm. It's so soft and luminous.... I cried all through
the end of that story and then thought I'd bring it to my private class,
but I'd never be able to read it to them without breaking up."
Mario A. Petaccia
suggests DELILAH AND OTHER STORIES, which he describes as "a heart-warming
Easter story...a laugh a minute ride through everyday family traditions
and religious dogma by four children who see a different way of celebrating
the feast of the resurrection."
has just read JOHN HENRY DAYS by Colson Whitehead. She says that it doesn't
fit this newsletter's emphasis on overlooked books (but, honestly, Shelley,
I'm open-minded— I'll read commercially successful books if they're good!)
She says "Whitehead is getting plenty of praise and attention as a talented
young writer--but in case you haven't read it I wanted to bring it to your
attention because it's very good and because much of it is set in West Virginia.
It's not as dazzling or innovative as his first novel, THE INTUITIONIST,
but it's still impressive. Both books are about racism and U.S. society,
approaching the theme from different angles. Thought-provoking, and beautifully
In a less enthusiastic
vein, Phyllis Moore wrote to ask if I had seen a copy of Louisiana State
University's recently published COMPANION TO SOUTHERN LITERATURE. She says,
"The COMPANION is the third publication I've seen that, in my opinion, slights
West Virginia in major ways throughout the volume. Norton published the
other two: THE ANTHOLOGY OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE; THE LITERATURE
OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH."
sends a compliment to BOOKS FOR READERS and then suggests a particular catalogue
as a source for reading ideas. "Neat idea. It's the same thing I like about
[the book catalogue] Bas Bleu. Inherent in your reviews is an honesty and
genuine liking of the books that promises, much better than chance, that
Bas Bleu is a colorful
catalogue with extensive, interesting descriptions of the books it sells.
You can request a copy from them at 515 Means Street , NW, Atlanta, GA 30318
or by calling them toll free at 1-800-433-1155 or online at www.basbleu.com.
And finally, Ardian
Gill comments on Kurt Johnson's choice of poetry in Newsletter #18: "Interesting
that the author of a book on Nabokov's butterflies should also send a poem
about a non-breaking tree branch. I finished the first draft of my novel
in Patzcuaro, Mexico, where the monarch butterflies come to spend their
winter in a nearby pine grove. Sometimes there are so many of these whisper-light
creatures on a branch that it breaks." (Sadly, I read in the papers last
week that there had been a freeze in Mexico with a huge death toll for the
Monarchs who migrate.) If you missed the last newsletter, it included lines
from James Wright's "Two Hangovers" that can be found in THE BRANCH WILL
NOT BREAK (Wesleyan U. Press).
Newsletter # 20
March 11, 2002
This issue of the
Books For Readers Newsletter is especially aimed at anyone who lives in
the New York area or is coming to visit soon. The painter I mentioned in
Newsletter #19 is part of a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, ORAZIO AND ARTEMISIA GENTILESCHI: FATHER AND DAUGHTER PAINTERS IN
BAROQUE ITALY. The exhibit runs through May 12, 2002, and several people
including Allan Appel and Win Thies alerted me to it. I've just gone, and,
let me tell you, those Baroque painters really knew how to put drama on
the canvas. The asp on Cleopatra's bosom! David finishing off Goliath! Judith
finishing off Holofernes! Judith finishing off Holofernes again! The paintings
are gloriously entertaining as they frankly display the artist's ability
to paint gore as well as capture expression and tell a story. The red velvet
behind Cleopatra and the crumpled sheets Holofernes is bleeding onto are
worth the price of admission.
Ardian Gill praises
the exhibit's catalog as "quite beautiful with many color prints and the
trial testimony that you mentioned [Artemisia was raped when she was seventeen,
and the crime was the subject of a long, well-documented trial]. It's published
by the Met and Yale University." He also recommends the catalog of a 1991
show he saw in Florence called "Artemisia," published by Leonardo-DeLuca.
And his cats are named Caravaggio and Artemisia.
are still books made strictly of words: Shelley Ettinger recommends Sarah
Waters to us with passionate enthusiasm: TIPPING THE VELVET, AFFINITY, and
the new one, FINGERSMITH.
I've just reread
and want to recommend Jane Lazarre's memoir, BEYOND THE WHITENESS OF WHITENESS.
This is about being the white mother of black sons. It is more generally
about race and racism in America and about connecting across ethnic divides
(does your family, for example, sit down at the dinner table and spear bites
from the serving dishes before they're passed? Or do you wait till everyone
is seated and only eat from your own plate? How do you react to dinner with
the other kind of people?)
Also, in preparation
for another go at my Appalachian Literature class (which didn't get enough
students to run last year), I read Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s memoir of growing
up black in West Virginia, COLORED PEOPLE. It's a lively, rich book, close
in some ways to how I grew up, but in other ways sharply divergent.
Then, entirely for
relaxation, I pulled one of Walter Mosley books off the shelf– GONE FISHIN'
in which Easy Rawlings is a callow youth who has not yet learned to read.
Mosley's mystery and crime novels are pot-boilers, but he is also a talented
writer with an imagination full of people and situations I probably will
never meet anywhere else. And by the way, Dear Reader, what are YOU reading?
The online literary magazine BIGCITYLIT is publishing a lot of interesting
work in many genres. Take a look at their featured March poet, Laura Sherwood
Rudish at http://www.nycBIgCityLit.com/contents/Twelve12.html. "This moon
reflected in my side view mirror is closer than it appears."