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Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Senior Editor
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; 2:00 PM

Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda took your questions and comments concerning literature, books and the joys of reading.

Each week Dirda's name appears -- in unmistakably big letters -- on page 15 of The Post's Book World section. If he's not reviewing a hefty literary biography or an ambitious new novel, he's likely to be turning out one of his idiosyncratic essays or rediscovering some minor Victorian classic. Although he earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell, Dirda has somehow managed to retain a myopic 12-year-old's passion for reading. He particularly enjoys comic novels, intellectual history, locked-room mysteries, innovative fiction of all sorts.

Michael Dirda (The Washington Post)

These days, Dirda says he still spends inordinate amounts of time mourning his lost youth, listening to music (Glenn Gould, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, The Tallis Scholars), and daydreaming ("my only real hobby"). He claims that the happiest hours of his week are spent sitting in front of a computer, working. His most recent books include "Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments" (Indiana hardcover, 2000; Norton paperback, 2003) and his self-portrait of the reader as a young man, "An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland" (Norton, 2003). In the fall of 2004 Norton will bring out a new collection of his essays and reviews. He is currently working on several other book projects, all shrouded in the most complete secrecy.

Dirda joined The Post in 1978, having grown up in the working-class steel town of Lorain, Ohio, and graduated with highest honors in English from Oberlin College. His favorite writers are Stendhal, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Montaigne, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov, John Dickson Carr, Joseph Mitchell, P.G. Wodehouse and Jack Vance. He thinks the greatest novel of all time is either Murasaki Shikubu's "The Tale of Genji" or Proust's "A la recherche du temps perdu." In a just world he would own Watteau's painting "The Embarkation for Cythera." He is a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, The Ghost Story Society and The Wodehouse Society. He enjoys teaching and was once a visiting professor in the Honors College at the University of Central Florida, which he misses to this day.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! For the next hour on this crisp spring day, we'll be talking about books and attendant matters bibliographical and lexicological, not to mention poetical, sentimental, and possibly even tragical. Today's show again comes to you from McDaniel College, on a day when I've already had six hour long student conferences (about various writing assignments). Little wonder that my mind turns to Job: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, and are spent without hope." Today, though, has gone on for a long time, with deserts of eternity in front of me--for I must work on a review later this evening.
That Dirda--always whining about something. Let's take a look at the questions for this week. Thanks everyone for stopping by--I don't say that often enough.


Washington, D.C.: Could you please tell us your preferences for these two translations?

"Augustine's Confessions." It seems the standard is Pine-Coffin. However, I recently found a version by F. J. Sheed, with an intro by Peter Brown (!), and he praises it to the skies.

Stendhal's "De l'Amour." Found an old Da Capo translated by "H.B.V. under the direction of Scott Moncrieff". Preferable to the Penguin version by Gilbert and Suzanne Sales?

Thanks very much!

Michael Dirda: I read Pine-Coffin's years ago--there's a name a man must be make of oak to live with. Reminds me of P.V. Glob, author appropriately enough of The Bog People.
Peter Brown is a hero of mine, and a great authority Augustine (see his wonderful, immensely readable youthful masterpiece of A of Hippo), and so I'd follow his advice. But my sense is that Henry Chadwick's is the version to go for--Chadwick worked on the standard scholarly edition of the Confessions and then made a translation for Oxford paperbacks. But I can't say that I've actually sat down and compared these three.
De L'Amour probably should be raad in the updated version by the Sales. I used it in my class. But I can't say that Stendhal ever really quite works his magic in English.


Lenexa, Kans.: Mr. Dirda: With Clive Cussler's "Sahara" in movie theaters, I decided to read it. (I had once listened to "Deep Six" on audio.) In "Sahara," Cussler has Dirk Pitt and Giordino encounter an old Jerome, Arizona-prospector in the Sahara Desert. Giordino asks, "Would I offend you if I asked you your real name?"/"Not at all, I don't take offense easily. It's an odd name. Never used it much ... It's Clive Cussler."/Giordino smiled. "You're right. It is an odd name."

Kind of a fun conflation -- didn't make the film version. Ever read or have any dealings with Cussler? Thanks much.

Michael Dirda: Never read Cussler, but he does sound like a guy with a sense of humor. On the other hand, I do have an old friend who lived for many years in Jerome, Arizona and used to send me updates on the doings of that town. Small world.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Can anyone help? I read a wonderful book as a child which was the saga of a pond in one season or perhaps yearly cycle. As the reader became attached to each creature in turn -- insect, frog, fish, it was devoured. You hated the predator, but then began following that creature until you grew attached and it too was devoured, whereupon the sequence began again. In time you realized you loved all the creatures, and that the natural order was being faithfully portrayed. It was a marvelous book. Does anyone know the name or author? I'd love to read it again and to pass it along to my nature loving daughter.

Michael Dirda: I don't know this off hand. But it sounds like something that Edwin Way Teale might have written. Any help?


Appomattox Court House (it was only 140 years ago): G'day: I like to stumble upon little known pearls, and having found many here, I'll toss out recommendations for two recent reads I thought good: "Little Miss Strange" by Joanna Rose (a 60's childhood) and "Jump Off Creek" by Molly Gloss (East Oregon pioneers). I'd be interested in hearing other chatters' suggestions for obscure favorites ... Thanks.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for sharing your enthusiasms. Obscure favorites is the name of the game at this show.


Washington, D.C.: The final poster to last week's chat, writing from Durham N.C., asked for guidance about Hungarian literature.

Incidentally, Michael, you may not be aware that your new home, McDaniel College, has for 10 years now operated a small campus and four-year degree program in Budapest (www.mcdaniel.hu).

It is a challenge finding English-language non-fiction books on Hungary and by Hungarians due to the geographic smallness of the country (although it was much larger pre-1920) and the uniqueness of the Hungarian language.

The Central European University Press and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Magyar Tudomanyos Akademia), both located in Budapest, publish excellent English-language non-fiction titles on all aspects of Hungarian history and society but are generally only to be found in academic libraries in the U.S.

There are a couple of recent non-fiction books published for the general trade market, however, that I would highly recommend.

"Budapest 1900 : a historical portrait of a city and its culture", by John Lukacs, was published in the U.S. in 1988 and is currently available from Amazon (I just got a copy a couple of weeks ago). Fifteen years ago this was the first book I read that was exclusively on Hungary, and I have re-read it several times since. Though it focuses on the brief period when Hungary was at the height of its power and influence, there is a great deal of information on Hungarian history from its known beginnings to the mid-1980s, as well as a good introduction to the leading literary and other cultural figures in the country's history.

The second non-fiction title may be a little more difficult to find but is absolutely worth the effort: "The Storyteller: memory, secrets, magic and lies". This book, published in 2000, is the most beautifully written work I have read in recent years. The author, Anna Porter, is the publisher of Key Porter books in Canada, although this title was published by Doubleday Canada. For whatever reason (and it is a shame) Doubleday did not co-release it in the U.S. I originally got a copy from my sister in Canada; as recently as Nov. 2004, I was able to obtain a paperback edition from Amazon; when I attempted to do so again two weeks ago I was informed it was no longer available and would not be in the forseeable future. The book focuses on the author's life from 1942-1956 (when her family fled the country in the wake of the anti-Soviet uprising of that year) and is engagingly told through the eyes of a child whose grandfather entertains her with stories of Hungarian history in an attempt to assure her that Hungary has survived trials as great or greater than those of their ever-declining circumstances. There is a magical quality to Porter's writing that makes this an immensely enjoyable read.

In terms of fiction the options, regrettably, are few. There have been many fine Hungarian novellists but English translations of their works are few and far between.

In 2003 a Hungarian novellist, Imre Kertesz, became the first Hungarian to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The Nobel committee was said to have wanted to combine two honors in one: recognize a Hungarian, and acknowledge the Holocaust as a subject for fiction writers. There were many, especially in Hungary, who felt that Kertesz does not belong in the top echelon of Hungarian writers, nor is he the finest chronicler of the Holocaust in fiction. Due to his prize three of his novels (all dealing with the Holocaust) have recently been published in English in the U.S.: "Fateless", "Kaddish for an unborn son", and "Liquidation". "Fateless", his best known, is told through the eyes of a 16-year old Hungarian Jew during WWII. Some have suggested a more apt title might have been "Clueless" since the protagonist is amazingly naive throughout the book.

The only other Hungarian fiction writer I can think of whose work has been published in the U.S. in English recently is Sandor Marai. His "Embers", published by Knopf in 2001 is wonderful (as you, Michael, agreed in your review of it). Unfortunately, only a couple of his other titles have been published in English, and thise were years ago. His "Memoir of Hungary, 1944-1948", published in 1996, is also well worth reading.

My apologies for the length of this posting. Personally, I have found learning about Hungary through its literature to be a truly rewarding experience, and I hope the poster is able to find some of these gems.

Michael Dirda: Many heartfelt thanks for such an informative posting. I do have the Lukacs at home, somewhere, and have always meant to read it. I used to collect those books with titles like Fin de Siecle Vienna, Wittgenstein's Vienna, etc etc. that deal with Central European cities during their golden age (usually early in the 20th century).
I should have remembered Sandor Marai, since Embers is a lovely book.


Frederick, Md.: Michael, I just want to thank you for opening up the works of both Gene Wolfe and China Mieville to me. I am just finishing The Scar.
I am a fellow Buckeye, lived in Bay Village and went to Miami U.

Michael Dirda: Glad you enjoy them. Both are among the most demanding, and rewarding, writers of sf now going.


Washington, D.C.: Can you recommend anything that catches the vibe of Swinging Sixties London?

Michael Dirda: Michael Moorcock's The Corneilius Chronicles, which trace the adventures of a swinging sixties icon, Jerry Cornelius. The Condition of Muzak is one of the better known titles in this quartet--which can be supplemented by the other novels about avatars of Corneilus (e.g. Jherek Carnelian). Moorcock in general really has a feel for this period, even if he does write "fantasy."
Any other notions out there?
You might also read some contemporary English novelists like David Storey, John Wain and Penelope Mortimer.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Did the "serious" ghost story die with Queen Victoria?

Michael Dirda: Hardly. Indeed, the greatest English ghost stories were published at the very end of her reign or during the first 30 years of this century. M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Oliver Onions, May Sinclair--the list goes on.
You should definitely look for the webstie of The Ghost Story Society, where you will find more information on all sorts of writers. All Hallows is the society's magazine and it offers reviews, comment and original short stories. Why, just last year, there was this terrific story about two Washington book collectors who make a deal with the devil? It was called "Dukedom Large Enough," and I can't quite remember who wrote it.


Southern Maryland: I read that the authors of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" are suing "Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown for plagiarism. I've read both books and I don't think they have a case. True, works of fiction don't offer convenient ways of annotating research. But Brown's characters explicitly name the books that inspired the novel. He even used an anagram of one of the "Holy Blood" authors for one of his character's names. How is this claiming another's work as one's own? What do you think?

Michael Dirda: I'd tend to agree that he doesn't have a case. In fact, you could go back to The Morning of the Magicians, by Bergier and somebody else (both French) as the source for both books. I've never read Brown's novel, and he may mention that title there.


Book search: Hi, Mr. Dirda. I know this is a long shot, but you are my last hope. Or is it my only hope? Only hope, I think. Anyway.

I am looking for the title of a book, whose cover in 1984 was white with black letters/illustrations (helpful, no?). It was a novel for kids, what my nephew calls a "chapter book" -- based mostly on Romeo and Juliet. Two warring families, children born to both at the exact crack of lightning during a big storm, the children grow up to fall in love and bring their families back to peace ...

I would love to buy this book for my niece, because I remember adoring it as an eight-year-old, but my Google searches bring me nothing. Does this ring a bell for you or any of your readers?

Thank you so much!

Michael Dirda: Sorry, doesn't ring any bells for me--though the two kids born at almost the same time at midnight recalls the boy heroes of Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Any help?


Bible translation : I am a firmly secular and areligious person who is planning to read the Bible (old and new testaments) as part of my self-administered literary education. I was wondering what translations you or the chatters might recommend? I'm looking for something readable, but still with some of that Biblical flavor if you know what I mean.

Michael Dirda: Just read the Authorized Version, aka King James, for the most "poetry." If you want a good scholarly text that preseves most of that early diction, but corrects where errors were made, try the Revised Standard Version (not the New--look for the one where the OT is edited by Herbert May). If you really want poetry, you might go look for the handsome Yale editions of Tyndale's versions of most of the Bible--he provied 80 percent of the phrasing for the King James and there is an active body that feels his is far more beautiful altogether.


Frederick, Md.: I teach developmental reading at a local college. I have been trying to get the students interested in actually reading something for enjoyment. Any thoughts on motivating adults who have extremely busy lives, careers, families and are struggling with college classes too?

Michael Dirda: This sounds like a lost cause, to be frank. It's the college classes that kill it. But you might have them read short stories or essays--material that can be finished in 15 minutes to a half an hour--and ask them to read them on the weekends. You might also ask how much time they spend watching TV or going to the movies. If they cut out one or two television shows, they could fit in a big chunk of a book. Developmental reading sounds like very basic reading, so perhaps you might try them on something like Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby--an important book, easy to read, beautiful English.


Dupont Drone: On Hungarian literature -- I bought as a Christmas gift "Under the Frog" by Tibor Fischer and the recipient really liked it. Written in English but by someone with a Hungarian background. Not for the faint of heart, though. PW's summary: "Fischer's debut novel, about two young men who escape communist Hungary to live a carefree live of sex and unemployment while being part of a traveling basketball team, was a Booker finalist."

Michael Dirda: Carefree lives of sex and unexmployment while being part of a traveling basketball team--where did I go wrong?


Seattle, Wash.: Re: Hungarian Literature

Don't forget Peter Nadas, Book of Memory, and the novelist Esterhazy who just published a rather long work about his family --yes, the very same employers of Haydn.

Babel Guides publishes a guide to Hungarian Literature. And, if you do a Web search you should find a Hungarian association for the promotion of literature -- I can't remember their name -- but they'll send you free a large packet of information about Hungarian writers, including a small book of short stories.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Yes, I know these books, but haven't read them.


Fab: Swingin '60's: "McCartney" by Barry Miles captures a strong essence of London in the 60's.

Michael Dirda: Groovy.


Ashcroft, B.C.: Swinging Sixties London: Jake Arnott's THE LONG FIRM is very good; mixes in a lot of underworld/gangster stuff (think the Kray brothers), plus Judy Garland for good measure. Haven't read the two sequels, but they look equally good.

Obscure writers: don't know how obscure he is, but I'm reading David Liss's THE COFFEE TRADER (a mystery set in and around Amsterdam's commodities market in the 1650s) and am thoroughly enjoying it, and looking forward to his A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, which won an Edgard Award, and its sequel A SPECTACLE OF CORRUPTION, both set in eighteenth century London.

Last week's query about Polar explorations: perhaps the best overall look at the quest for the Northwest Passage is Pierre Berton's THE ARCTIC GRAIL; like all Berton's books it's immensely readable. Ken McGoogan's recent FATAL PASSAGE, about the almost forgotten Arctic explorer John Rae, is recommended, as is Wayne Johnston's novel THE NAVIGATOR OF NEW YORK, which details Peary and Cook's battle to be the first to the North Pole.

Don't thank us; thank YOU for taking the time to give us a chance to discuss all things bookish.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, Ashcroft. Interesting about coffee trader. My old friend Gregory Feeley has a new short novel out called Arabian Wine, which deals with the Renaissance discovery of coffee. It's a kind of fantasy, published by Temporary Culture, which usually specializes in chapbooks by or about the late, great Avram Davidson. Now there was a writer!


Miskatonic U., Arkham: For the Bible-reader: Note that Mr. Dirda recommends his translations based on the poetic nature of the language. The RSV provides a nice balance between beauty and accuracy, but most serious biblical scholars (by whom I mean folklorists and anthropologists as well as theologians) use the New Revised Standard Version. What it loses in poetry it gains in accuracy and non-sexist translation (well, that's sometimes a loss, but...). You might want to look into a concordance (with background on when/why/by whom the various books were written) -- HarperCollins has a nice one.

- Miska U., Home of the Lady Shoggoths (NIT Champs in __05!)

Michael Dirda: You just wait till Yog Sothoth hears that you've been using the school computer for such frivolous, non-Eldritch activities.
You're right, of course. And I might have gone on to mention the New Interpreter's Bible or the Doubleday trnanslations. But this sounded like a guy who wanted a good read. Just recently I picked up for a few dollars the two volumes devoted to the KJ Old Testament in the Nonesuch edition--straight prose, no numbers and footnoes, designed, as they used to say, to be read as living literature.


Lenexa, Kans.: Regarding the King James Version: As one wag put it, "If it was good enough for St. Paul, it's good enough for me."

Michael Dirda: Lovely.


Munich, Germany: Sorry to intrude on you like this, but I'm looking for book suggestions for a 45 to 50-ish woman, whose husband has just left her for someone else. The story is particularly poignant, because the woman was being treated by some group or organization, that were trying to establish a susceptibility to hereditary depression. Not only did these people succeed in creating her depression, they succeeded in ending her marriage. I'm reminded of the story "Wild Duck" by Henrik Ibsen, where a meddling do-gooder tries to change the behavior of a character with disastrous results. Judging by these results, however, "The Manchurian Candidate" would be a more accurate representation.

I think that something soothing would be the right thing for her right now, and while your at it, I could do with a soothing read because this entire fiasco irritates me so much. The people responsible should be drummed out of their professions.

Michael Dirda: What an fascinating, if pathetic, story! Maybe what your friend needs is a good wronged wife revenge novel: e.g. Fay Weldon's The Life and Loves of a She-Devil.
For soothing, though, I hate to say it again, but there's no place like Holmes--unless it's Wodehouse.


Stendhal: Michael,
I just finished reading "The Red and the Black" and thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked the psychological portrait of ambitious Julien summed up by the fact he pursued a vocation in the church only because he saw it as the best way to power in the post-Napoleonic era. I had the book for many years but could never get past the dry first chapter. When I finally pushed through it, the narrative swept me headlong. I was surprised to find it just as "racy" in places as Madame Bovary. I now have the Charterhouse of Parma lined up for a read. Are Henry Brulard and other books by Stendhal just as gripping?

Michael Dirda: Henry Brulard is, in some ways, very gripping--but it is above all a superb evocation of a consciousness in action, reflecting on the past, making it live again.


Bethesda, Md.: The animal story also sounds like something Ernest Thompson Seton might have written.

Michael Dirda: thanks.


Baltimore, Md.: Swinging 60s London and D.C. bookstores: No, these are not related, but for the poster looking for good books with a flavor of the former, I would suggest St. Urbain's Horseman, by Mordechai Richler, the late, lamented Canadian author who lived in London during that period and worked as a screenwriter. As for bookstores, someone mentioned the long-gone Savile Book Shop in Georgetown last week. I worked there for a couple years in the mid-70s and it was a wonderful place -- a rabbit's warren of three old townhomes. But I recall the look of dismay on the face of many customers when they were informed that our paperback section was organized ... by publisher. It certainly made doing returns easier, but other than that, I never could figure out the logic.

Michael Dirda: Clearly, the place was modeled after Foyle's in London.


Hungarian Literature: Celestial Harmonies is the name of the Peter Esterhazy book. Apparently, the Hungarian version includes a postscript where he discusses a discovery of his father's papers that show he wasn't quite the man he worshipped as a child. The English version didn't include this.

Here's an address for a group called Hungarian Literature on-line. I don't know much about them, though. Hungarian Literature Online

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Dublin, Ireland: Have you noticed of late how some newspaper and magazine critics are becoming somewhat mean-spirited in reviewing new fiction?
(I, of course, exclude you and the Post from this company!)
This trend is particularly noticeable in Europe. For example, Martin Amis's "Yellow Dog" was attacked mercilessly in the British and Irish press, and I suspect that this had a lot to do with envy over his advance royalty checks and dental work! Salman Rushdie has also been the victim of unfair criticism.

I just hope that we don't return to the searing attacks on authors' works of bygone days. On the publiction of "Madame Bovary" in 1857, Le Figaro declared "Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer." In 1922, Virginia Woolf >said of Joyce's Ulysses: "The book is diffuse, it is brackish, it is pretentious, it is underbred ..."

I would welcome your comments.

Michael Dirda: Well, vicious reviews have been with us for some while. Amis started to endure them regularly with The Information (the book that paid for the new teeth). Young critics, like young guns, figure that the way to make their reputations is to take out some legendary figure, whether its Billy the Kid or Salman Rushdie. On the other hand, writers are uneven, they do coast sometime, and the "correction of taste" is a major aspect of criticism.
As for Woolf, she's actually perfectly right about Ulyssess--but it is other things as well, most of them wonderful and unique.


London, England: I've just read today's Style article by Jacqueline Trescott on The Smithsonian's Concession to the Bottom Line (Post, April 13) -- Museums Cash In With Food, Shops. It made me think of a fantastic new novel I've just read called "The Bowl is Already Broken" by Mary Kay Zuravleff which, among other things, explores how the staff at the "National Museum of Asian Art" respond valiantly to a Smithsonian directive to convert their museum into a money-making food hall rather than a showcase for Asian art and culture.

How do novelists make their books topical when they are often written years in advance and when the publication process takes so long? Is it just luck? Does it matter to a book's critical reception and success?

Michael Dirda: Hard to say. The cynical might wonder fi Jackie Trescott and Mary Kay knew each other. Altenrately, Jackie may have read the novel and decided to check into the reality behind it.


Downtown D.C.: For those interested in Storyteller by Anna Porter, it appears that a paperback version is available on Barnes and Noble's Web site. Probably more efficient than finding it in a used bookstore, but not as much fun!

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Kilmarnock, Va.: Rereading "For Whom the Bell Tolls" recently sent me back to some other Hemingway novels, including "A Moveable Feast," written I think in the fifties. I was surprised how catty were the descriptions of nearly all his literary friends back then, except for Ezra, and even about him, Hemingway reported that Ezra, literary critic, confessed he hadn't "read the Roosians." It was a little unfair after everyone else was dead to write this stuff, but Hemingway was apparently an angry old man. Nevertheless the items must have been juicy at the time, helping, of course, to sell the book. Wondered about your reaction to a question that must have been discussed and settled years ago.

Michael Dirda: I think Feast came out in the very early 60s, and was indeed criticzed for the meanness of spirit that Hemingway displayed, especially toward Ford Madox Ford. But the old Hemingway was a man with lots of problems, starting with his health and ending with a deprssion that prevented him from writing well and led to his suicide. Yet I think Feast is one of his four or five best books--the prose quite beautiful and evocative, without the pretentiousness of some of his other stuff. In our Time, The Sun Also Rises, A Moveable Feast are probably my three favorite Hemingways--but I also like the letters quite a bit.


Richmond, Va.: Michael --
I discovered Robertson Davies last year and have been completely entranced -- wonderful writer. Is there another author you'd recommend I try if I'm a big fan of Davies? Someone suggested to me John Cowper Powys, but I must admit he left me a little cold. (I attempted "A Glastonbury Romance").

Michael Dirda: John Irving views himself to some degree as Davies' disciple--you might try A Prayer for Owen Meany, which recalls Fifth Business.
You might also like Iris Murdoch or John Fowles.
As it happens, I've written a preface to Penguin's new edition of The Manticore (due out sometime next year, I think).
But Davies has written a lot--have you read The Enthusiasms of RD, the letters and a couple of other miscelllanous collections?


Elgin, S.C.: Do you like William Gass? I read (and remember liking) "Omensetter's Luck" in college, but his novel "The Tunnel" was a different story. It's one of those obscure, opaque, difficult books where the energy I put into reading and understanding it was not rewarded.

Michael Dirda: I loved The Tunnel--a quote from my review is on the paperback. That said, I and Michael Silverblatt were about the only two mainstream reviewers to be quite that enthusiastic. The whole issue of the character of the hero--anti-semitic, etc--is behind a lot of this, even when reviewers knew that Gass wan't endorsing his views. But those sentences! Those similes! There's no one who touch Gass. The problems is that he's not what you'd call a page-turner--he wants you to linger over his prose and savor it, listen to it like music. You have to take his work slowly.
Something of the same might be said of Pynchon's Mason and Dixon, which is also an autumnal masterpice--very funny and moving, but not the razzmatzz techno stuff of his earlier work.


Motivating adults to read: Hi Mr. Dirda,

In response to the poster who wanted to get adults to read --try reading to them. You'd be surprised how many adults enjoy being read to. This shows them that it can be fun and might get them interested in an author or genre. Also try some 3-5 minute "book talks" in which you enthusiastically tell the students about a book you read and enjoyed, then make the book available for them to borrow. Provide the opportunity for the students to give their own book talks later.

I hope this helps. Thanks

Michael Dirda: many thanks.


Miska U., Arkham: I also left out the Jerusalem Bible, which is the translation preferred by the Catholic Church. There's also a set of single book paperbacks with introductions by famous people (Bono introduces Psalms, for example), but I can't remember who put them out. Not all books are represented.

Back to class before Prof. Whateley finds out what I'm up to...!

Michael Dirda: There are also two collections of essay on respectively the OT and the New, by various literary folk--I think Celebration or something like that is the title of the OT volume. That's not the right word, but something close.


Munich, Germany: Many thanks Micheal. There are times when one gets so angry at the injustices of life and the incompetency of bureaucracy that it just wants to make you scream.

As it so happens, I'm reading "The Hounds of the Baskervilles" now, and I think that your suggestion for the woman involved sounds great. Anger is better than depression at this stage.

Michael Dirda: Good luck.


Bible reader: "But this sounded like a guy who wanted a good read." -- in part, but primarily looking to get a background for recognizing/appreciating biblical allusions and allegory in literature. Can't argue with Lenexa, KS's advice though. Thanks!

Michael Dirda: Ok. I'm sure that St. Paul acquired his marvelous command of English through reading the King James version of the Old Testament. (This is a joke--please don't think I think that Paul knew English....)


Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: Michael, I've heard you say you never buy books online. I recommend you take a look at http:// dogbert.abebooks.com/, which represents several thousand small books stores and sellers. You can find anything from dog-eared reading copies to first editions. They coordinate the sales using a secure shopping cart system similar to Amazon. I have bought things this way that I would never have found otherwise.

Michael Dirda: I'm sure it's a fine service. But if anyone can find me volume 9 of the 12 volume Lippincott edition of The Tales of Henry James, edited by Leon Edel--then I'll start using an online book service.


Thanks!: Thank you! to you or to a poster who recommended Cloud Atlas a few weeks back. I am about 2/3 through it and it reads like a puzzle that s-l-o-w-l-y unfolds page by page (or chapter by chapter). I'm hoping I am as enchanted with it at the end, but don't give away the ending!

Michael Dirda: It's the poster who you should thank.


Oklahoma City, Okla.: As a steady reader of your weekly chat, I note a pattern: When you assess writers and books, you seem to come down very heavily on the side of style. I, too, admire graceful writing and the artful use of words, but there's also room for good storytelling, in fiction and nonfiction alike. Your thoughts on how the two factors weigh in your mind (or should weigh in the minds of readers) in deciding to call a book "good" or "bad."

Michael Dirda: Yes, Style is very important to me, especially to the kind of odd books that I frequently most enjoy. But I'm also a great admirer of anyone who can contrive an original plot--John Dickson Carr, one of my favorite mystery writers, isn't much of a stylist, but he comes up with the most ingenious ways of committing locked roomy murders.
I try to bear all the school-based aspects of reading in mind--theme, character, plot, etc. But style is the one that matters most to me, followed by wit and humor. In nonfiction I look for original scholarship, and really don't care for the kind of potted stuff that makes the best seller list (e.g. How the Irish Saved Civlization). I'd rather read the scholars who are doing the real work.
But this is me. I don't say I'm right or wrong. I am, in some sense, an esthete, and I read for pleasure -- my pleasure.

And that, friends, brings us to the end of another session of Dirda on Books!


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