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Monday, January 03, 2011

Meredith Sue Willis's Books for Readers #137

Newsletter # 137

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● Final call for my January Online Class "Strategies to Write Your Novel." The class is almost full. For information, see

● Writers: Submissions for THE HAMILTON STONE REVIEW winter issue #23 are now open. See the details at

● For those of you doing last minute gift shopping, consider the wealth of small press books that may delight and interest people on your list. Take a look, for starters, at my Gift Books list at

Let me begin this issue with an excellent new novel, THE CHIEU HOI SALOON by Michael Harris. This is part of PM Press's Switchblade series ( "a different slice of hard-boiled fiction where the dreamers and the schemers, the dispossessed and the damned, and the hobos and the rebels tango at the edge of society").

The setting is the seamy side of Long Beach, California, during year of the Rodney King beating and subsequent trials and riots. The protagonist is Harry Hudson, a chronic stutterer who works at a fictional newspaper called the CLARION as a copy editor. He is barely keeping his job, living in what he calls a "blur," trying not to remember the death of an old villager when he was a soldier in Vietnam and the death of his small daughter much more recently. He does try to remember to send child support to his ex-wife and surviving child. When he is feeling particularly self-destructive, he goes to dives where people watch low quality pornographic movies and variously have sex with strangers and themselves. The good part of Harry's life is Mama Thuy's Chieu Hoi Saloon where he feels a modicum of belonging, and in his free time he tries to help a local prostitute with an extended dysfunctional and violent family.

Now here's the thing: what I've described so far is how the book gets labeled noir, but Harry is at rock bottom, a lover and care-taker. It is Harry's story, but Michael Harris gives the women in Harry's life occasional point of view passages, notably the tough but tender Mama Thuy and Kelly the Kansas born African-American prostitute who always needs money. Even Harry's religious zealot of a wife gets a passage that dips into her consciousness. All of these women, even his ex in her section, value, admire, and forgive Harry. If only Harry could forgive himself, which is the monumental task before him.

Harry's adventures take place mostly on dark streets and in crummy rooms in rough neighborhoods and include being shot in a hold-up and taking a bizarre but bizarrely believable drive with an armed enemy in the back seat of his car. These elements– the scene, the slimy sex, the casual violence– are what makes the novel part of the Switchblade series, but while the story has hard edges, it isn't really hard-boiled, not even heart-of-gold hard-boiled. Most of the evil (except for the plans of very distant, very rich newspaper owners) is as much situational and mistaken as it is intentional. Most of the people are in one degree or another understandable if not lovable, from the motley crew at the bar to Kelly and her incarcerated husband, her quarrelsome sister-in-law and niece, her ex-con brother, and her dangerous step-son.
Everyone uses Harry, but also appreciates him as a friend– this is true of Kelly, and also of Mama Thuy, who accepts his money to bring her family out of Vietnam to California. Harry wants to be loved and maybe married, but instead is a friend, maybe a more valuable relationship to most women than husband or lover.

Above all, Harry is worth reading about and feeling for. It's a good book, engrossing and– even if the end is not exactly upbeat– all the doors are open.

Next, I want to recommend a nonfiction book that wasn't as good as I'd hoped, but was still pretty darn fascinating: THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A TALE OF MURDER, INSANITY, AND THE MAKING OF THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY by Simon Winchester. There are a few too many instances of Winchester eating his narrative cake and having it too. For example, he tells an apocryphal tale of how Professor James Murray met Dr. W.C. Minor without knowing that he was in an institution for the criminally insane. In fact, Murray learned this in a much less dramatic way. Wincester tells the real, less thrilling version much later in the book. Unfortunately, if you only read the first part of the book, you'd go away with the wrong information.

Less egregious is his lurid narration of the murder that got W.C. Minor in the insane asylum in the first place. The London fog and darkness is well-described and evocative, but, again, it's written for maximum dramatic effect. What I liked best was the lively description of how the OED was developed; what a monumental task it was– and how it was in some ways a proto-Wikipedia; for the story of poor Dr. Minor and his work on the OED and his insanity. It's such a sad story: his crazy crime, his time as a Civil War surgeon (he was an American), his pathetic self-mutilation late in life. To see more of Winchester's broad reach of nonfiction books, go to his website book page at

I also read with great pleasure (thank you Connie Brosi for the recommendation!) FOLLOW THE RIVER by James Alexander Thom. This is an historical novel of the amazing true adventure of Mary Draper Ingles, who was captured by Shawnees, escaped, and walked hundreds of miles home through the Appalachian mountains in early winter through incredible difficulties. She has a companion, too, a crazy, hungry Dutch woman, who adds a kind of twisted humor and interesting human relationship to the amazing physical challenges. Thom does the physical challenges extremely well. He treats Ingles as an ordinary human being bent on survival, and his respect for her has just the right tone. He writes of the horror from the white settlers' point of view at the scalping and murder by the raiding Shawnees, but also presents the Shawnee villages as complex communities, and even allows Mary a moment of considering accepting her captor, known as Captain Wildcat, as a husband.

When Mary chooses to run away and go home, she has to leave three children behind. The afterword of the novel tells about how one of her sons is eventually returned to the white world, but has an ambivalent relationship with it, and often returns to the Shawnee world.

I hope to read more of Thom's books (see his website at, and the work of his wife Dark Rain Thom, a voting member of the council of the East of the River Shawnee of Ohio.

Finally, to stick with the old fashioned delight of tales well told, I have a new guilty addiction: the George R.R. Martin swords and sorcery series, FIRE AND ICE, starting with GAME OF THRONES. Boy, was this fun, and now about to become a series on HBO. It isn't the kind of serious fiction I aspire to write myself (although when I enjoy it so much, I sometimes ask myself why it isn't), and I couldn't read only this kind of book with its portentous hints of dark deeds past and darker deeds to come, with its beheadings and sword play, but it is fun fun fun. Part of what makes it work for me is that Martin, like James Alexander Thom, is willing to grant his women agency and power. There's one charming girl character who is even a fighter, and a couple of armored warriors who are women as well as leaders. Another really good character is a dwarf known as the Imp who is a member of the bad royal family, but clever and humorous, and probably the most consistently reasonable voice in the book. I like some of the point-of-view characters more than others– the Imp and the fighter girl are my favorites– and I admit to speeding up over the whack thwack and sickening crunch of the battle scenes. One thing Martin does so well is the sorcery element– the dragons and secret magic– which are dealt with sparingly, which is fine with me, as my complaint in novels with magic is always that the writers tend to use magic or the arrival of the good dragons from the sky to solve plot problems they couldn't resolve otherwise. So far, Martin is doing it all right.

– Meredith Sue Willis


Foer explicitly is "not trying to make you a vegetarian." He's lying; this is exactly what he's trying to do. In fairness, it is really about "better options" when eating animals, but by the end, it's quite clear what he thinks (and wants you to think) about "the best options" for eating meat. (Here's a hint: he's not in favor of them). Just to be clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with this approach, you just should be aware of what you're getting yourself into.

The book itself is solid, albeit heavy handed at points and missing critical arguments at times. For example, Foer makes a great deal of not-so-subtle argument by adjective, referring to the "Frakenstein genetic makeup" of factory-farmed chickens. He also fails to fully address several important questions, like why we have factory farming in the first place. Waving it off as merely a result of a drive for profit, he fails to point out that it is part of a greater movement towards factory farming that has greatly increased the worlds' food stores and in large part staved off food shortages.

That having been said, Foer paints a powerful portrait of exactly what goes into your meat. He is most successful when he sticks to simply describing the facts of factory farming: for the animals involved, for the environment, and for us, the humans (Spoiler alert: it isn't good for any of them). If you have a strong sense of supporting moral and ethical behavior, this is an important read in understanding exactly what goes into that chicken wing you're about to eat.

The inevitable comparrison is to Michael Pollan's magnificent "The Omnivore's Dilemna." Let's cut to the chase: "Eating Animals" is not as good. Pollan does a much better job of not trying to appeal to emotion, and he at least *tries* to give a half-hearted defense of why factory farming is here. That having been said, Foer takes many of Pollan's arugments and applies them more fully to animal farming. At the very least, Foer makes you wonder about your meat consumption.

If you have an interst in where your meat comes from, this is a must read. Just know what it is before you start reading it.


Jane Lazarre says: "Not only was the Oz memoir (A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS see Issue # 136 one of the most wonderful books I have read, and I use it often for many reasons - writing and teaching, but the new novel by David Grossman TO THE END OF THE LAND is the best novel I have read in years - moving, beautiful, layered, complex. I also recommend FRIENDLY FIRE, and THE LIBERATED BRIDE, both by A.B. Yeshoshua, along with Oz and Grossman-- all three Israelis - very highly."

Monique Raphel High writes, "Hallie Ephron has a new mystery novel: COME AND GET ME. Her first one, NEVER TELL A LIE, was so compelling and such a page-turner that we should all rush off to buy it! There was also a delightful piece by her sister Nora in the New Yorker a few weeks ago that mentioned Hallie and her sisters."

Jeffrey Sokolow recommends A CURABLE ROMANTIC by Joseph Skibell (Algonquin Books, 2010). "In this sprawling and magical novel, which begins in Vienna in 1895 and ends in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, the protagonist has strange encounters with three well-known historic personages – Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis; Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof (aka Doktor Esperanto), inventor of the 'universal language' Esperanto; and the Hasidic rebbe of Warsaw, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira – along with a love-sick but vindictive dybbuk (in Jewish folklore, the spirit of a dead person who possesses the body of the living) who has pursued the protagonist through an unending series of lifetimes and several not-quite-so-angelic angels. I couldn't put it down, but was sorry to finish it because I wanted the story to keep going. It's a great read."


Poetry online and on the air: Lawrence Joseph, D. Nurkse, Hugh Seidman, and Susan Wheeler on WBAI's "The Next Hour" Sunday, 12/14, 11 AM, WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City.
WBAI Home Page: WBAI Live Stream:
WBAI 7-Day Archive: "Next Hour" Permanent Archive:

Read a sample of Barry S. Willdorf's FLIGHT OF THE SORCERESS at . The book is available from Wild Child Publishing, the result of eight years of research, writing and editing. It represents an accurate portrayal of the Roman Empire in the Fifth Century A.D. with appearances by several notable personages of that period including Hypatia of Alexandria, Pelagius the heretic, Pope Innocent, Saint Augustine and the Roman Prefect, Orestes. Further information about this unique historical novel, set in the fifth century A.D., can be found at: and at the publisher's website, .


Louise T. Gantress' new book BITTER TEA is praised by James Fallows of THE ATLANTIC:
"With Bitter Tea, Louise T. Gantress has produced a vivid, memorable and realistic portrait of Japan during the boom years of the 1980s. The oddities and delusions of those days made an indelible impression on those who witnessed them, and this book brings all the details back to life."

THE CENTER FOR FICTION (formerly the Mercantile Library) in NYC: Events has rental space for writers.

Mike Topp has a new book called SASQUATCH STORIES from Publishing Genius Press, with a cover drawing by Tao Lin and a frontispiece drawing by former Silver Jew David Berman. Information here: or email Mike at

EPIPHANY is proud to announce the arrival of its Fall/Winter 2010-2011 issue, PERSISTENT LABYRINTHS: ANALOGUE ANTIDOTES TO THE DIGITAL MORASS, vital new writings that, disparate as they are, all bring readers to engrossing and unexpected places in the mazes life perennially holds in store. The new EPIPHANY includes a richly comic story by Dale Peck ("Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore"); an excerpt from Lisa Dierbeck's hip new novel, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF JENNY X, that strips the façade off the private life of a powerful senator's son; two further chapters from KEEP THIS FORTUNE, silver-spoon adoptee A.B. Meyer's witty and moving memoir of reuniting with her birth mother; and much more, including débuts by promising and original new writers you won't find anywhere else.

THE WRITING LIFE WORKSHOP with Ellen Bass January 28-30, 2011, Esalen, Big Sur .
This workshop will offer an inspiring environment in which to write, share our work, and receive supportive feedback. We'll help each other become clearer, go deeper, express our feelings and ideas more powerfully. From beginners to experienced, all writers are welcome. Whether you are interested in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or journal writing, this workshop will provide an opportunity to explore and expand your writing world. Esalen fees cover tuition, food and lodging and vary according to accommodations--ranging from $360 to $695 (and more for premium rooms). The sleeping bag space is an incredible bargain and usually goes fast, as do some of the less expensive rooms, so it's good to register early. All arrangements and registration must be made directly with Esalen (Esalen at 831-667-3005 or at, but if you have questions about the content of the workshop, please call Ellen Bass at 831-426-8006. Ellen Bass's most recent book of poems is THE HUMAN LINE, was published by Copper Canyon Press

THE BODHISATTVA'S EMBRACE: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism's Front Lines by Alan Senauke. See website at

Johnny Sundstrom's new novel DAWN'S EARLY LIGHT is set in the desolation that became known as southern Wyoming. Martha Bradford, traveling on the Oregon Trail, is told she must discard either her cast-iron cook stove or her pianola. She has them both taken off the wagon and then refuses to go on any further For information, email the author 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

My latest way to get used books is through 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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