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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Meredith Sue Willis's Books for Readers #134

(News courtesy of Meredith Sue Willis)

Meredith Sue Willis's BOOKS FOR READERS Newsletter # 134 September 8, 2010
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The Hamilton Stone Review # 22 Is Now Open for Poetry and Nonfiction Submissions. Go to

My big Victorian this summer was George Eliot's DANIEL DERONDA, a reread for me. This is one of the books you don't want to read at the wrong time. The right time, of course, is usually impossible to know in advance. I remember being intensely impatient with a lot of it on first reading, but for me, the summer of 2010 was the right time, partly because it's a real grown-ups' book, but also, it has some very personal aspects for me. The plot centers on two people, one a flawed young woman who makes a bad choice, and the other, a rather idealized young English gentleman who discovers he is Jewish. The personal for me is related to my own son's discovery that he was not Jewish (thanks to yours truly, the cultural Baptist) and then his recent conversion to Judaism.
I am also fascinated by the novelistic project Eliot took on of imagining being the Other– in this case, imagining being Jewish at a time when the upper classes in England looked down on Jews– and that a best case scenario. I was also interested in Eliot's exploration of the impact of history on individual lives."There comes a terrible moment to many souls," she writes in the penultimate chapter of the novel, "when the great movements of the world, the larger destinies of mankind, which have lain aloof in newspapers and other neglected reading, enter like an earthquake into...lives– where the slow urgency of growing generations turns into the tread of an invading army or the dire clash of civil war, and gray fathers know nothing to seek for but the corpses of their blooming sons, and girls forgot all vanity to make lint and bandages which may serve for the shattered limbs of their betrothed husbands." This happens especially to Gwendolyn Harleth, the flawed young woman. Gwendolyn would be happy simply to enjoy and consume the good things of her small world, but she is dragged brutally into both deep moral issues, and glancingly, into history as well.
On the other hand, Daniel Deronda, is actually seeking a place for himself in the history. He yearns to act in the world, and there is some indication at the end of the novel that he may succeed in doing this. Eliot uses him for purposes of the story, as the vehicle for her project of imaging what it would be like to discover you are part of an oppressed and despised Other in Victorian English society. She tries to imagine her way into being Jewish.
It is a truism in commentary on DANIEL DERONDA that the book is imperfect, and that the imperfection resides in how Eliot fails to embody Daniel and his ideals and his Jewishness. His love interest, Mirah is a sentimental construction, and in spite of Eliot's valiant efforts at being fair to lower class as well as upper class Jews, the pawn broker Cohen and his family are humorous and largely stereotypical. However– with the possible except of some of Mirah's brother Mordecai's Romantic proto-Zionist speeches, every page is sharp, interesting, and deeply worthwhile, flawed or not.
The story circles around Daniel, whose origins are mysterious, but who has been brought up as a perfect English gentleman– handsome and charismatic, a beacon of support especially for troubled women– but unable to fix on a career.
The second focus is Gwendolyn Harleth-- limited, selfish, not very likable but very charming. Gwendolyn makes a disastrous marriage with one of the creepiest but appallingly believable villains you'll meet in fiction– a pallid, drawling, indolent upper class sadist whose lifework becomes keeping his wife in bondage. This part of the novel is a perfect blend of idea and drama and character. Economic pressure leads Gwendolyn to make what she knows is a bad decision, and Gwendolyn's efforts to stretch her small capacities into maturity and responsibility make one of the best expositions of a character maturing in fiction. Missing, of course (this was published in 1876), is the sex life of Gwendolyn and her husband, but their physical relationship is a great lacuna that gives a resounding hollowness to the horror of the marriage.
Everyone who reads the book gets caught up in the Grandcourt marriage, but you are never unaware of the larger world: the economic failures that ruin Gwendolyn's family; the Civil War in America and its effect on mill workers in England; the many national rebellions and efforts to create new states in Europe and around the world.
This romance of nation building attracted Eliot as it did others of her class and education– the idea of homelands for discrete peoples, of freedom and wars of liberation. She found it natural that a great future for Daniel would be nation building for his people.
Simultaneously, she was struggling against the poisonous, narrow-minded, cultural anti-Semitism of the English. One novelistic problem she took on here, was how to make the shop-keeping Cohens human even though she herself appears to have shared the general British repugnance for loud voices, gesticulation, personal aggressiveness (as in an eager shop keeper). She deals with the Cohens with more than a little lingering condescension, but she does give them attractive and deep family affection.
A more successful solution to her efforts to combat anti-Semitism was to make her most important Jewish character essentially English, educated as her male readers would have been educated, with life experiences they could identify with. The question then becomes, is Daniel an English gentleman or a Jew? The set up, of course, is that Daniel has been looking for a purpose in life, and now he finds one by embracing his people, politically if not religiously.
Perhaps most interesting to me are two minor characters, Klesmer the musical genius and the Princess, a retired singer– and Deronda's reluctant mother. These two are distanced by being foreigners (Klesmer is very quirky: he makes faces and has broad gestures; the Princess's morals are dubious), but both of them are artists, and intensely attractive to Daniel and to the reader.
Several of the women characters in this novel work for a living, or have worked for a living: the Princess was a working artist, and Mirah teaches and sings for select small audiences. Gwendolyn Harleth chooses not to take a position as a governess, and this is part of her catastrophic personal decision. She also makes an abortive effort at becoming a self-supportive artist, and the scene where Klesmer tells her chances is one of the best in the novel.
Klesmer, it should also be noted, represents another solution to the situation of the Jews in England, which is assimilation; he marries for love the wealthiest heiress in the novel. The heiress, Catherine Arrowsmith, actually makes the offer to Klesmer, and there is a wonderful comic scene when her family tries to bring her to her senses.
One of Eliot's ongoing themes in all her books is about how women can fulfill their humanity. In this novel, she offers suffering as a way for Gwendolyn to grow, but she also has the strong rich woman who goes after her man, and she has women who are professional musicians. The only woman writer (Catherine Arrowsmith's mother) is a bit of a caricature, so Eliot never really creates a female character who does what she herself did, which was to write what I consider the best novels of Victorian England.
For more on DANIEL DERONDA, see Susan Carpenter's notes below.

– Meredith Sue Willis


"I'm fascinated by DANIEL DERONDA. It's not as perfect a novel as MIDDLEMARCH, but there's a lot I've never found anywhere else.Disclosure: George Eliot holds a special place in my private author-pantheon. That nineteenth-century narrative voice is SO wise, SO insightful. I read her for therapy. I also read the I Ching for therapy, fwiw.
"What I love about DD: both stories. One is the education (really proto-feminist consciousness-raising) of Gwendolyn Harleth. The other is Daniel's identity search, which leads him to cross cultural and class lines, to expose and uproot from his subconscious the kind of British anti-semitism comparable to modern American institutional racism. The interesting thing about Daniel is that he DOES explore, relentless as Oedipus in Sophocles' play, from his early boyhood question about why the popes had so many nephews to the last, brutal-naked conversation with his mother. The interesting thing about Gwendolyn is ... well many things, but mostly this: she's being dragged kicking & screaming into awareness of who she is and can (must?) be.
"To be sure, some of the plot-elements (e.g. the romance between Daniel and Mira) seem too stale to be credible to us post-Victorians. And the character whose name I can't remember – Mira's brother [Mordecai], the proto-Zionist whom Daniel admires and learns from -- is downright tedious. I've read the book several times and keep finding more in it.
"Some of the critical material about it is interesting too. A psychoanalytic journal published an article suggesting Freud may have used DD as a model for effective psychoanalysis. F. probably read the book soon after it was published in the 1870s, long before he developed his theories. Daniels' relationship with Gwendolyn does have some parallels to the relationship between analyst and analysand: she comes to him and asks to talk; then she talks and he listens, and he's never quite sure what is going on or what to say, but the talking itself helps her get through her ordeals, and near the end of the book (as the reader is thinking, "Do these two have a future or not; they seem to be in love, but what about Daniel and Mira?") they let each other go with a sense that the therapeutic conversations have done their work.
Another critic has written that it's simply a double love story."


"I've just finished slogging through all 1100 pages of A LETHAL OBSESSION: ANTI-SEMITISM FROM ANTIQUITY TO THE GLOBAL JIHAD by Robert S. Wistrich. (The title is somewhat misleading, as the focus is primarily on post-World War II developments.) It's a thoroughly depressing read on several levels. Wistrich demonstrates in excrutiating detail the persistance and mutability of Judeophobia in Europe and the mideast. Especially depressing is his depiction of the emergence of a 'red-green-brown' (leftist/Islamist/neo-Nazi) ideological convergence if not outright alliance, in which Israel plays the role of the "international Jew," and traditional anti-Semitic narratives such as the blood libel and the supposed Jewish plot for world domination as depicted in the notorious 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' are transferred from the 'demonic Jew' to the 'demonic Zionist.' Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the book is Wistrich's detailed analysis of the genocidal and exterminationist ideology of what has been called, with some controversy, the Islamofascist movement. I call this analysis depressing because if Wistrich is right that the Islamists are little more than Nazis, then peaceful negotiation of the dispute between the Israeli and Palestinian nationalist movements over who gets which portion of what land is simply impossible if the aim of one side is to exterminate the other. Against all evidence to the contrary, I continue to hope that he is wrong, but I wouldn't bet the farm on my being right. God help us all if Iran gets the atomic bomb and decides to bring forth the hidden imam in a 21st century version of the Holocaust (the historical fact of which the clerical fascist regime persistently denies while working toward its completion). This important book deserves to be read, and answered if possible, so don't let my depression put you off."


"Last February, I reviewed a slew of books [See Issue # 128] about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Just published and hence too late to have included in that batch is FREEDOM SUMMER: THE SAVAGE SEASON THAT MADE MISSISSIPPI BURN AND MADE AMERICA A DEMOCRACY by Bruce Watson. Many books have been written about SNCC's 1964 Summer Project, but none is better or more complete. Blow by blow, bomb by bomb, moment by moment, filled with vividly recounted incidents, Watson makes that summer come alive. Well written, thoroughly researched, incredibly moving, this is a powerful and ultimately inspiring book that deserves a wide readership."


Ardian Gill writes, "In a recent BOOKS FOR READERS [Number 133,], AlSistair MacLeod's NO GREAT MISCHIEF was recommended. The odd title is a quote from one of the Brtitish/Canadian generals in the book who says, "It's no great mischief if a few Scotsmen get killed."
Macleod's book of short stories, ISLAND, is a marvelous portrayal of the lives of the Scot/Irish immigrants to the Canadian Maritimes."


Wanchee Wang has an informative blog about taking her eleventh grader to colleges– what they experiences, what they learned: .


If you would enjoy reading books portraying Black/White relationships in West Virginia, , two are A VEIN OF RICHES by John Knowles and MISS 4TH OF JULY, GOODBYE by Christopher Janus. A VEIN OF RICHES opens prior to 1900 and the first two chapters are especially interesting. The portrayal of the wife as manipulated by her coal baron husband is A DOLL'S HOUSE and THE YELLOW WALLPAPER combined. There is description of a "colored" coal camp as well as a Black preacher, a former student of Booker T. Washington'.
You have probably read RED WHITE BLACK & BLUE: A DUAL MEMOIR OF RACE AND CLASS IN APPALACHIA by William M. Drennen, Jr. and Kojo (William T.) Jones. Jr. and BEETLECREEK: A NOVEL by Clarksburg's William Demby, and BLACK DAYS, BLACK DUST: THE MEMORIES OF AN AFRICAN AMERICAN COAL MINER by Robert Armstead as told to S. L. Gardner. In addition, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Homer H. Hickam, Jr., portray Black/White relationships in their respective memoirs COLORED PEOPLE and ROCKET BOYS.
Scholar Ancella Radford Bickley's MEMPHIS TENNESSEE GARRISON and her historical OUR MOUNT VERNONS provide interesting African American history in WW. Just republished is HEARTS OF GOLD: A NOVEL, a Reconstruction Era work by J. Mc Henry Jones. [See Issue # 131 at Phyllis's notes on this book].
In children's literature, Sandra Belton's FROM MISS IDA'S PORCH is just about perfect and so is the work of Walter Dean Myers in NOW IS YOUR TIME! THE AFRICAN AMERICAN STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM. Belton describes children learning about segregation as they listen to stories being told on the porch of a neighbor and Myers describes his great-grand mother's enslaved on a plantation in what is now West Virginia.
And on a slightly different note, when people think of West Virginia they seldom think of a girlhood of an Irish Catholic in a steel mill town, complete with a parochial school. But that is the setting and the story for Anna Egan Smucker's children's book NO STAR NIGHTS. Fine artist John Holyfield (Clarksburg) is doing illustrations for children's books set in the era of the Klan and "white only" bathrooms.


:A Good Company I've used for turning my hard copy books that were written on typewriters (yes, yes, I know...) into .pdf or .doc files, is Golden Images, LLC at Write to Stan Drew, who is very responsive to email, and does the work for what seems like a reasonable price to me.


PAOLA CORSO's new novel CATINA'S HAIRCUT is just out from The University of Wisconsin Press. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY calls it "A fable-like follow-up to GIOVANNA'S 86 Circles….the stories, individually, find moments of inspired, ethereal revelation."

PETER BROWN's new children's book CHILDREN MAKE TERRIBLE PETS! Is a giggle-fest of a story in which Lucy the bear finds a cute little boy in the woods and brings him home to be her pet. She names him Squeaker (because he doesn't speak Bear), and after getting off to a great start Lucy learns the hard way that some critters just aren't meant to be pets. Peter's book tour starts this week . See details are here:

BARBARA CROOKER is one recent featuree at the Shreve Library in Shreveport, LA's poet-a-week project, see their website at Barbara Crooker 's poem "Peaches," from her new book, was the Daily Poem at this site on August 31st:

JIM MINICK's book THE BLUEBERRY YEARS has just been published. This memoir captures our story of creating and operating one of the mid-Atlantic's first certified-organic, pick-your-own blueberry farms, and recently, this book was picked by Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance as one of the best new books for the summer. Author Naomi Wolf describes THE BLUEBERRY YEARS as "delicious reading," and Robert Morgan calls it "an intimate visit to a delightful place with an inspired guide." Several other writers have given this memoir advanced praise, including Sharyn McCrumb, Ron Rash, Steven Hopp, Ann Pancake, Nina Planck, and Joel Salatin. Visit to read all of these kind comments and to see his reading schedule.

Tricia Idrobo's short story "Evan's Photograph" was published in the Women Who Write literary journal GOLDFINCH 2010.

Phyllis Moore has new reviews out. The current issue of JOURNAL OF APPALACHIAN STUDIES, Volume 15 (2009) has a review she did of PALE LIGHT OF SUNSET by Lee Maynard. Also, the current issue of APPALACHIAN HERITAGE contains her review of HEARTS OF GOLD by West Virginia's J. McHenry Jones.

The eleventh issue of THE INNISFREE POETRY JOURNAL is now open for literary business at on a computer, iPhone, or iPad near you. Innisfree 10, featuring the work of John Koethe, continues to be available under Previous Issues, along with all of the first ten issues. Innisfree 11 takes a Closer Look at the work of Eleanor Wilner and includes new work from 36 other fine contemporary poets.

SPIRITUAL ENGINEERING has just been published by Books to Believe In. Author Thomas J. Strawser is an international engineer with a master's in psychology and many losses in his life that led him to seek practical solutions to his despair. Combining spirituality, psychology, and engineering have led him to transformations that he shares in this new book. See the web page at

If You're Near Queens, New York: Saturday September 18, 2010 2:00 PM
Award Winning Poet Juanita Torrence-Thompson and Legendary Poet-Activist Sonia Sanchez will read at the Queens Library, 100-01 Northern Boulevard, Corona, Queens

Red Hen Press in Los Angeles is offering a pre-pub discount for THE LAST JEWISH VIRGIN, Janice Eidus's new novel.

CHRISTIAN NOVELLA CONTEST hosted by is open till October 30, 2010. They are looking for manuscripts between 15000 and 30000 words. Themes are Historical or Contemporary romance, suspense, time travel and holiday. The contest is open until October 30 2010. They are also looking at novelette length items for their website, between 5000 and 15000 words, same themes as above, and for short stories etc for their online magazine. See the sample
at to see what we can use. Send items to with a writers bio (new authors welcome) and a very clean and well edited manuscript as an attachment.



John Birch, a veteran of the British army and many years of corporate communications posts a fiction or non-fiction piece every month at his blog, . Most of these have appeared in newspapers or periodicals on one side or the other of the Atlantic,

Library of America sends out a free story link by email
These are a lot of fun– so far, I've read a Washington Irving devil story and Howard Zinn's piece "Finishing School for Pickets" about his students in the early sixties, young women at Spelman College who defied their elders and joined picket lines. Read the latter at


The largest unionized bookstore in America is Powell's Books ( Some people prefer shopping there to shopping at An alternative way to reach their site and support the union is via Prices are the same but 10% of your purchase will go directly to the [Powell's bookstore] union's benefit fund. For a discussion about Amazon and organized labor and small presses, see the comments of Jonathan Greene and others in Issues #98 (bfrarchive96-100.html#97) and #97 (bfrarchive96-100.html#98).


If a book discussed in this newsletter has no source mentioned, try your public library or your local independent bookstore. To buy books online, I often use Bookfinder at or Alibis at 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 to deal with the unionized bricks-and-mortar bookstore Powells online at .

Other good sources for used and out-of-print books include Advanced Book Exchange at and All Book Stores at
For more comparison shopping, take a look at , another free comparison shopping website, particularly for textbooks, that says they search over two dozen bookstores to find the lowest prices in textbooks and more.

Other ways to get books: I have used and liked the paid lending library Booksfree at and Paperback Book Swap at, a low cost (postage only) way to get rid of books and get new ones.


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


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