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Holiday Books

The gifts that keep on giving (really).

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page BW19

Some people try to tailor their holiday gifts to the recipient. Not me. I simply give books I myself would like to read (or reread). To my mind, books really are the perfect present -- you can pay $10 or $15 for a paperback of Indian Summer, William Dean Howell's delicious novel of romance in late 19th-century Italy (NYRB Classics) or many times that for, say, the magnificent Grenfell Press edition of Guy Davenport's The Bowmen of Shu. Or anything in between.

Over the past several months, I've gradually built up a stash of fiction and nonfiction that I've been reading, dipping into or daydreaming over. For the most part, these books tend to be distinctly minor works, unimposing (often no more than 150 or 200 pages in length), a bit odd, but deeply companionable. You're not likely to find any of them on the bestseller lists, and some may be hard to find at all.

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For instance, The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street (Frances Lincoln, $19.95), edited by John Saumarez Smith, gathers the letters between the comic novelist Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill, the founder of London's most prestigious independent bookshop. For anyone who loves reading, this volume is self-recommending: Beautifully designed and printed, it chronicles Mitford's literary career, book purchases, ailments (serious eye trouble) and gossipy encounters with old friends. For example, here she describes, with her usual breathless élan, the novelist Henry Green (in 1962):

"Henry is now like some wonderful ancient monument or unpredictable sage with his long brindled hair & green face & gaps in teeth & one doesn't know what or if anything will come next & one is kept in anxious though excited incertitude. He was funny about Evelyn [Waugh]. I swore I could remember his exact words to tell you, but of course I can't. It was something like, 'Isn't Evelyn himself the height of human folly?' "

Richard Jenkyns's A Fine Brush on Ivory (Oxford Univ., $25) is subtitled "An Appreciation of Jane Austen," which sounds rather lightweight, a work of breezy, David Cecil-like nonchalance. But Jenkyns -- a professor of classical tradition -- offers telling observations throughout his engrossing short book: "The distinctive feature of Pride and Prejudice is the number of its subplots, knit into one another with confident mastery. The abundance of anecdote and episode in the book -- the sheer amount of things happening -- is a part of its vitality; it is a means of imparting the ethos of sparkling comedy." Elsewhere, Jenkyns points out that Persuasion is "that great rarity, a novel which is too short." He goes on to say that we really need to live through Anne Elliott's "lonely endurance" more extensively than the book allows us to and that the "reawakening of Wentworth's love for her" should have been a more gradual process.

Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, selected and translated by Burton Raffel (Modern Library, $17.95), gathers work from the classic Greek anthology. That means the poems are lapidary, epigrammatic and often erotic. Here's one by Simonides called "Timon": "Timon of Rhodes lies here, who drank his fill,/ And ate his fill, and said whatever he thought of every man he knew."

Now that's an epitaph any man might envy. Such laconic simplicity makes most poetry look downright florid. Here is Meleager on "Heliodora": "Heliodora's garland fades, but she glows,/ Shining bright, a garland for her garland."

Anyone with a taste for diaries and notebooks should look for D.J. Enright's Injury Time (Pimlico; paperback, $22.99). Many years ago I visited the offices of the Times Literary Supplement and was told that Enright -- poet, translator, novelist -- was then the most versatile literary reviewer in Britain. Injury Time is the third and last of his wry, sharply intelligent collections of observations about daily life. He not only records his own failing health and hospital visits but also Margaret Drabble's favorite pun, about a left-handed card shark, who possesses "sinister dexterity." Turn a few pages, and he mentions a man who dreamed he was reading his own newspaper obituary under the headline "Local Man Goes to Heaven." Throughout, Enright reveals a dry taste for the absurd, wrong-headed and blackly ironic: "Eyes holding up pretty well . . . Unfortunately, I can read the headlines. 'Dying woman, 71, raped in hospital.' "

Lest you imagine that I only care for slender volumes by litterateurs, let me recommend four works of fiction.

The title story in The Avenging Chance and Other Mysteries from Roger Sheringham's Casebook, by Anthony Berkeley (Crippen and Landru, $19) is one of the half-dozen greatest short whodunits ever written. "The Poisoned Chocolates Case, as the papers called it, was perhaps the most perfectly planned murder" that the amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham had ever encountered. I envy anyone encountering it -- and these other clever, witty stories -- for the first time. Mystery fans know that Berkeley also wrote, under the name Frances Iles, the classics Before the Fact and Malice Aforethought.

Robert E. Howard is best known for creating Conan the Barbarian, but connoisseurs of his adventure fiction tend to prefer the work now gathered in The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (Del Rey; paperback, $15.95). Kane is a Puritan swordsman, ever fighting the forces of evil, whether human or demonic. He reminds me of Van Helsing in the recent movie of that name. Howard's prose aspires to the melodramatic, not to say histrionic, but its period kitschiness inspires affection. When Solomon Kane, that wanderer, that landless man, stumbles across a wounded young girl, she has time to tell him only of her rape before she dies. Afterward Kane rises from her side. "A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils. 'Men shall die for this,' he said coldly."

Boris Vian's Foam of the Daze, translated by Brian Harper (Tam Tam; paperback, $18) has been called "the most poignant love story of our time" (by the French polymath Raymond Queneau). The love of Colin and Chloe may end tragically, but the novel is filled with wordplay (one character collects Jean-Sol Partre memorabilia) and such imaginative notions as the "pianocktail" -- a drink blended by playing a keyboard to release different combinations of liqueurs and flavorings. Vian himself remains a legend in France; imagine a James Dean who played jazz trumpet, wrote innovative novels and poems, and died young from a bad heart.

For Negativeland (Autonomedia; paperback, $9.95), Doug Nufer adopts an unusual constraint: Every sentence in the book contains a negative. Yet Nufer makes his prose sound relatively unconstrained -- and witty. When the hero and his girlfriend pick up some paperbacks, he writes, "You couldn't buy just any book. Some weren't for men, others weren't for women. Books not for men were written by women and had covers with women men wanted. Books not for women were written by men and had covers with men or submarines." Nufer's book is sexy, clever and just the sort of thing the master experimentalist Georges Perec might have written. Perec composed his famous novel La Disparition without using the letter E, but in "The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex" -- included in Three by Perec (Verba Mundi/Godine; paperback, $16.95) -- the only vowel that appears is . . . E. Astonishingly rendered into English by E.N. Menk.

When an anthology is dedicated to the great and greatly versatile singer Eva Cassidy and the much-missed artist Susan Davis, along with four other Washington women who died young, you know you're in wise and sensitive hands. Richard Peabody has been a mainstay of the D.C. literary scene for 30 years, whether editing Gargoyle magazine or compiling collections like Grace and Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock; paperback, $14.95). There are more than 30 stories in this hefty paperback, but nearly all of them possess a brash swagger and sexiness that may surprise. Isn't Washington supposed to be staid? This volume is not only an important showcase but also a lot of fun.

For fun, though, you can't beat New Orleans. And, as any habitué knows, the culinary heart of the French Quarter is Galatoire's. In the tell-all Galatoire's: Biography of a Bistro (Hill Street, $24.95), Marda Burton and Kenneth Holditch reveal the history of the restaurant, its specialties (many recipes are given) and the people who've made it special -- the owners, chefs, waiters and customers. These last included, most famously, Tennessee Williams, who had his own table (later inherited by Holditch). This gustatory and social landmark is bright, crowded and noisy, and the downstairs doesn't take reservations, which can be a nuisance when the line winds out the door. But the food, and those Sazeracs! As Gourmet magazine once wrote, "more than a place to satisfy one's hunger, Galatoire's is a place where time and the outside world fade from consciousness." Yes indeed. Of course, those Sazeracs help.

Thomas Hardy felt that men were the playthings of the gods; his rough contemporary Proust maintained that love was nothing but tormenting jealousy. In Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited (Oxford Univ., $45), Michael Millgate amplifies his much-admired 1982 life of the novelist, drawing on new archival material. This is one of those thick, well-written biographies one can happily lose oneself in. The Proust Project, edited by André Aciman (Farrar Straus Giroux, $25), offers a series of essays on In Search of Lost Time by such distinguished writers and scholars as Judith Thurman, Colm Tóibín, Edmund White, Louis Auchincloss and Diane Johnson. In her essay, Shirley Hazzard reflects at length on the standard Scott-Moncrieff translation and its later revisions; elsewhere, the editor, Aciman, describes Proust as a "cross between Freud, Woody Allen, and Murphy of Murphy's Law." For the mandarin Richard Howard, his "favorite phenomenon in Proust" is the sentence, or, in his own inimitable words: "Physically draped upon conclusive syntactic trusses to form a mesmeric design, la phrase is my cynosure." The Proust Project isn't really an adequate introduction to the novel, but it provides a bonne bouche of the pleasures that await readers and rereaders.

One should read poetry all through the year, but only at Christmas do we tend to read it aloud and in public (even if it's only "The Night Before Christmas"). New British Poetry, edited by Don Paterson and Charles Simic (Graywolf; paperback, $16), extends an irresistible invitation to the work of some two dozen poets, among them James Fenton, Ruth Padel, Glynn Maxwell, Fred D'Aguiar and Jo Shapcott. One of the best is (Bronx-born) Michael Donaghy, who died suddenly this fall. His poem "The Bacchae" starts like this: "Look out, Slim, these girls are trouble," and it just gets better.

Ah, books! Such wonderful creations. I wish I had more room to comment on the poems -- encounters with the still points of this turning world -- in Rod Jellema's A Slender Grace (Eerdman's; paperback, $18) or to describe the ever-fruitful suggestiveness of Otto Rank's classic The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, its full text newly translated by Gregory C. Richter and E. James Lieberman (Johns Hopkins Univ., $49.95), or to linger over the pleasures of Nicola Shulman's nostalgic evocation of an Edwardian eccentric, A Rage for Rock Gardening: The Story of Reginald Farrer, Gardener, Writer and Plant Collector (Godine, $20). But perhaps all I really need to say about these, as about all the titles on this holiday list, is Read Them. •

Michael Dirda's new book of essays, "Bound to Please," is out in hardcover, and his "An Open Book" is now available in paperback. His e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.

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