Author Archives: MSW

Shelley Ettinger on Kia Corthron’s The Castle Cross The Magnet Carter

Earlier this month I finished reading Kia Corthron’s magnificent first novel The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it yet. I’ve been dying to talk to someone about it but no one I know has read it yet–it did after all just come out–so I’m going to talk about it a little bit here. On Read Red. Which I herewith declare reborn.

The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter is, as any great work of art must be, several things at once. It is a book of amazing craft and innovative technique. The whole first third or so, all of which is written from the POV of four different children, is dazzling. The kind of writing that makes other writers shake our heads in wonder and wonder gee how in the world did she do that. But it’s not the off-putting, fancy-but-unreadable kind of dazzling that in some quarters passes for laudable language manipulation, the kind of trickery for its own sake that accomplishes nothing except displaying the writer’s self-regard. No. This is the pull-you-deep-inside-the-characters’-minds-and-spirits kind of literary magic that so many try but so few can pull off. I don’t know how many times in the weeks since I finished the book I’ve heard little Elliot’s full-of-wonder voice in my head saying ‘I love Mom! I love pork and beans!’ Which might sound like a minor silly example but is not, because these early passages that so thoroughly bring Elliot the young child to life have everything to do with how the reader is engaged with his story as it develops in his adulthood.

Well not everything. For the adult Elliot’s story, who he becomes and what he does, speaks to another facet of what this book accomplishes. This is political art of the highest order. As we meet the four main characters–Elliot and his brother Dwight who are Black children growing up in Maryland, and white brothers B.J. and Randall in Alabama–it is 1941. Jim Crow is in full force. The U.S. is about to enter World War II. And we know that these two sets of brothers will come of age at the time of the start of the civil rights movement, and into full adulthood in the 1960s. What we don’t know yet as the novel begins, what I didn’t dare hope even as I was falling in love with it as literature, is that the story will open and deepen and tackle the big stuff. It does. And so as we read on, always engaged in a specific story about specific characters, we also engage with the history of the U.S.  in the 20th and 21st centuries. Racism and racist violence. Divisions and solidarity. War. Class. Poverty. LGBTQ oppression. Disability and disabled oppression. Palestine! And more.

Anyone who’s ever read any of my posts on this blog during the years I kept it up–or anyone who now reads its title–or anyone who scrolls through and reads some of the archive as I now invite new visitors to do–will know from even my too-brief words here about this book that it meets every criterion for what I consider great literature. It is political art. On the side of the workers and oppressed. Full of passion, wit, charm and heart, this fine novel makes the case, and by doing so flies in the face of the U.S. literary establishment’s anti-political-art rules, for what people’s fiction can truly be.
I mentioned heart. Some paragraphs back I wrote that this book is several things at once, and of course I’ve failed to delineate what all those things are yet written too much already, so you’ll just have to discover them all for yourself when you read The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter. But I do want to touch in closing on one facet that absolutely blew me away: the amazing, searing big-heartedness of this beautiful beautiful book. In the closing pages Corthron draws all the threads of the story together satisfyingly and effectively, with grace and skill–but more than that, with an unsentimental depth of emotion that shocked me into the kind of sobbing that makes it hard to read. I won’t say anything specific that would be a spoiler, but I found myself feeling deep compassion for not only the characters I’d grown to love, the characters I could in one way or another identify or empathize with, but also for a character for whom I would never have thought I would or could or would ever want to weep. That Corthron made me cry for this character speaks, I think, not only to her deeply generous humanity, to her powerful insight into human beings, but, most important for a red reader, it speaks to her broad vision of the purpose of literature. She’s making a case for change. For the possibility of change, and the necessity of change. For social change that can and does happen, brought about by people joining together and fighting for it, no matter how hard the sacrifice needed. For the future. And literature’s place in forging it.

Hope, then. This is the abiding emotion you’re left with when you close this book. You’re left thinking about how hard it all is, but also how much better it’s become, how far we have to go but also how fully capable we are of moving forward. What a gift.

Shelley Ettinger  (From Read Red)


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Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

WVelma-Wallishat makes this novel political, to my mind, is how it offers a view of community and individualism that is at once exotic to me and written in a way that opens itself to my understanding.  Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, has apparently been a best seller, although I only recently heard of it. It is sometimes classified as a book for adults, sometimes for children, perhaps because it’s small. The writer is a Gwich’in Athabascan Indian, born in 1960, and she hasn’t published a lot.   I looked for an image of her via Google, and one picture I found was of her a few years back speaking about the sad death of one of her brothers who was homeless and burned to death.

I don’t know her present world or her cultural past, but Two Old Women is wonderful. It is in the form of a legend told by a mother to a daughter. It tells of two elder-women left behind by their nomadic band to die during a time of extremely tight resources. They are not simply victims– indeed, it turns out they have been demanding and lazy for a long time.   At the same time, they have rich memories of their own lives and also of how to do things.  In fact, their pooled knowledge allows them to do extremely well on their own for a whole year.  They accumulate large stores of dried fish and meat, rabbit fur gloves and homemade coats. They are contacted again by their band, who are still starving, and there is guilt and distrust on all sides, and then a slow, painstaking reconciliation. Everyone learns respect, and the two old women learn not to expect always to be taken care of– that they need to share their efforts and knowledge. This is a really interesting happy ending that is about group growth rather than individual fulfillment.

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Shelley Ettinger’s Best Books of 2015

The best novels I read this year are: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald, The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa, The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen, The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar, Tumbledown by Robert Boswell, and The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.


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Felix Holt: Radical

Young Harold Transome returns to England from the colonies with a self-made fortune, then scandalizes his district by running for Parliament as a Radical. In this elaborately plotted and entertaining novel first published in 1866, George Eliot contrasts the opportunism of Transome with the true radicalism of Felix Holt, who fights a lonely battle to educate the working class.

However, while Transome and Holt are the movers of the action, it is the women who are the novel’s soul. Like working people, women of all classes are damaged by poor education and thwarted by social limitations. Mrs. Transome, Harold’s mother, is handsome, imperious, and weighed down with a secret. Until the moment of Harold’s return, she has found some satisfaction in running the family’s estate, but Harold immediately takes over all decision making and sets his mother aside in a little drawing room with new clothes and new decorations‒ chosen by him.

Felix Holt’s mother is a comic version of Mrs. Transome. Mrs. Holt has earned her living by making and selling patent medicines. Then Felix returns and insists that the medicines do more harm than good. Thus he too denies his mother her life’s activity.

The novel’s other central character, however, Esther Lyons, has the enormous advantage of being young and beautiful. She has not yet settled on her destiny‒ which, for an Englishwoman of her era means choosing a husband. The choice for the romantic, undereducated, and overrefined Esther is between Felix Holt’s hard life among the lower classes and Harold Transome’s wealth.

Like Mrs. Transome, Esther has a secret, but Esther’s secret elevates her. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel is how this good-humored but frivolous young woman grows serious and thoughtful as she is given opportunity and experience. Late in the novel, she even speaks in a public courtroom to testify in favor of Felix, who has been falsely accused of rioting during the election. Felix Holt has many meandering, exotic pleasures, including the convoluted plot, the wonderful minor characters, and the splendid descriptions of England in the 1830’s.

It is a novel whose politics downplay the value of strikes and public demonstrations.  The hero Felix Holt is all about education, not direct action, but it still repays the reading  with insights that expand our understanding of our own scattered and shattered era.

 This review by Meredith Sue Willis first appeared in the Ethical Culture Review of Books.

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Shelley Ettinger’s VERA’S WILL!

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Shelley Ettinger’s Very First Novel! is now available and getting superb reviews!    Shelley Ettinger, co-founder of, has just had her first novel published by Hamilton Stone Editions.    It is getting fantastic reviews!  For example, Library Journal says:

Shelley Ettinger’s Vera’s Will is 
“Powerful, superbly written” and “a breathtaking achievement”!!!

Other comments include:

Vera’s Will is a beautifully written family saga with a twist that tells the parallel stories of a woman and her granddaughter who are both lesbian. Their intersecting stories, one that begins a hundred years ago in Czarist Russia and the other that begins in suburban America, re-create in vivid detail their historical epochs. One is a story of self-sacrifice, the other is a story of liberation; the author’s great gift is to show us how they intertwine.  Michael Nava, author of  The City of Palaces

Vera’s Will is a novel of tremendous insight, and tremendous import. Shelley Ettinger moves expertly between two compelling voices, between the recent and distant past, between the personal and political, writing with clarity and heart. Too many stories are lost to history, too many voices are silenced, often the stories and voices we need most. Vera’s Will is not only a deeply moving book, but a gift, and a kind of rescue. Justin Torres, author of  We the Animals

Vera’s Will spans the twentieth century and three generations, taking us from Russian pogroms to immigrant struggles, from family-ravaging homophobia to GLBT resistance. Ettinger’s captivating story is rich with social and cultural detail, alive with generously-drawn characters, and unflinching in its political passion. Ellen Meeropol, author of  On Hurricane Island

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Book Leaf Reports on FBI Surveillance

Great article about how the FBI surveilled (and influenced) Black writers from 1919 to 1972. I’ll bet it goes beyond ’72. Am I cynical or have I just been paying attention?

This just goes to show how political writers (literary works) are. Even the ones who don’t think they are: because to not engage with politics is a vote for how things are.

In light of this article, should writers seek out FBI personnel to critique their manuscripts? Retired FBI people could set themselves up a little critique business: writers send in their manuscripts to be assessed for political potency. The highest praise of a manuscript would be: “Likely to start revolution.” The lowest: “The government (or perhaps more accurately, the 1%) has nothing to worry about.”

Excerpt from the article, but recommend the whole thing:

… said Maxwell. “I knew Hoover was especially impressed and worried by the busy crossroads of black protest, leftwing politics, and literary potential. But I was surprised to learn that the FBI had read, monitored, and ‘filed’ nearly half of the nationally prominent African American authors working from 1919 (Hoover’s first year at the Bureau, and the first year of the Harlem Renaissance) to 1972 (the year of Hoover’s death and the peak of the nationalist Black Arts movement). In this, I realized, the FBI had outdone most every other major institution of US literary study, only fitfully concerned with black writing.”

Maxwell’s book about his discovery, FB Eyes: How J Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, is out on 18 February from Princeton University Press. It argues that the FBI’s attention was fueled by Hoover’s “personal fascination with black culture”, that “the FBI is perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature”, and that “African American literature is characterised by a deep awareness of FBI ghostreading”.

Princeton said that while it is well known that Hoover was hostile to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, Maxwell’s forthcoming book is the first exposé of “the extent to which the FBI monitored and influenced African American writing” between 1919 and 1972.

… The academic told the Guardian that he believes the FBI monitoring stems from the fact that “from the beginning of his tenure at the FBI … Hoover was exercised by what he saw as an emerging alliance between black literacy and black radicalism”.

Highly recommended:

Richard Wright’s ditty is wonderful:
“every place I look, Lord / I find FB eyes / I’m getting sick and tired of gover’ment spies”

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Thoughts about

It seems like is always in the news.  Is Amazon the AntiChrist?  What is it doing today to/for writers and small publishers?

For a long time, I’ve been putting a note on my newsletter for readers and writers suggesting  alternative places to buy books  (the unionized Powell’s for example, and all the local brick-and-mortar book stores).

A while back,  Jonathan Greene, publisher of Gnomon Books, made the point that, on balance, Amazon has done more positive than negative for small presses. On her blog “ReadWriteRed,”  Shelley Ettinger has several posts offering thoughts on monopolies and Mom-‘n-Pop books stores from a left perspective: See  and  She also talks about the essential selfishness of many of the Big Writers , with more here.

And finally– only because it’s the most recent post chronologically– I have a post about why International Octopus is what you get under our politico-economic system, but at least Amazon carries my books.

Let us know what you think.






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