Dirda on Books

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Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, May 21, 2008; 2:00 PM

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

Each week Michael Dirda's name appears -- in attractively large type -- in The Post's Book World section, where he writes about new novels, neglected classics, fat biographies, European literature, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, poetry, works of scholarship, the occasional children's book, almost anything under the rubric of "arts and letters." Although he earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell, Dirda has somehow managed to retain, well into middle age, a myopic 12-year-old's exuberant passion for reading.

As he has for the past 40 years, Dirda says he still spends inordinate amounts of time mourning his lost youth, listening to music (classical, jazz, oldies, country and western), and daydreaming ("my only real hobby"). He claims that the happiest hours of his week are spent sitting in front of a computer, writing. His most recent books include "Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments" (Indiana hardcover, 2000; Norton paperback, 2003), his self-portrait of the reader as a young man, "An Open Book" (Norton, 2003) and a collection of his essays and reviews titled "Bound to Please" (Norton, 2005) Last year he brought out "Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life" (Henry Holt, 2006) and last fall Harcourt published "Classics for Pleasure."

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." Dirda is a member of several literary associations, including the Baker Street Irregulars and The Ghost Story Society. Despite a penchant for quiet and solitude, he enjoys giving talks, teaching, and traveling. People tell him that he can be pretty funny for a guy who usually has his nose in a book.

(He also thinks he can be pretty funny at times...)

An archive of his reviews is available here.

An archive of his discussions is available here.

Dirda was online Wednesday, May 21.

A transcript follows.

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Michael Dirda: Welcome to DoB, on a sunny day. Today I'll be stopping promptly at 3 or a little sooner, as I need to drive to an afternoon doctor's appointment. You can imagine how much I look forward to this.

So, rather than regale you with my thoughts and reveries and the like, let's just plunge into the questions.

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Fredericksburg, Tex.: Nadine Gordimer's "The Conservationist" is 1 of 6 finalists for the all-time Man Booker award. If you have reviewed her work, do you consider this her best?

washingtonpost.com: Best of the Booker shortlist

Michael Dirda: I've never reviewed Gordimer and haven't read much of her. I have a couple of her books around, and even one that is signed.

Am I alone in tiring of all this attention to the Man Booker prize? I'll bet that nobody here can name the winner for last year and the year before.

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New Lenox, Ill: Repeatedly, I have been accused of only perusing "depressing" books. Therefore, I recently turned my attentions to and have finished reading the comical "Augustus Carp ESQ By Himself." I had never heard of this book prior to reading about it in "Three Classics," contained in Dirda's Readings. It was just the thing to allay suspicions that I cannot read anything lighthearted. It has many funny parts, such as when he talks about being "un-addicted to athletics," and that "he should rejoice to see the day when, instead of the football ground and the tennis pitch, the coasts should be thronged with people" skipping stones; or the hysterical, "that he couldn't possibly demonstrate his culture in so confined a form as an examination;" and the bit about his mother not wanting to be his housekeeper, and since she knows a little French, she thinks she'll be going to the Riviera. Priceless. I now have a copy of it in a slim Folio Society edition. I'm certain that my "accuser" would thank you for bringing some levity to my reading.

Michael Dirda: This is, as people here may know, my favorite comic novel, at least if we exclude the Wodehouse canon. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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Woodlawn, Va.: I'd like to second New Lenox's post last week encouraging you to write a book for adults on children's books. I read very little as a youngster. Now I'm discovering for the first time some of the gems of children's literature - Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, Roald Dahl's works (a new favorite of my 8-year-old son). In fact, at your suggestion, my wife and I are reading Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and really liking it. It has a very Bronte-esque quality.

As I visit the library and book stores with my kids, I'm also discovering some unexpected pleasures. A favorite picture-book author is Bill Peet. I wonder how many people know of him. He wrote and illustrated some 30 books beginning in the 60s and into the 80s. Most are about personified animals or machines (trains mainly) trying to find their talents or to achieve some cherished goal, and his stories tend to center on the struggle of old-fashioned values of civility, decency and community against the hurry-hurry of a mechanized and increasingly impersonal world. From what I understand, Peet was a strong-willed Midwesterner who did some work for Disney during its animated golden age before butting heads with Walt and departing under less-than-amiable circumstances. (This, mind you, is all the result of cheap Internet research.) At any rate, his illustrations are these exquisitely detailed crayon drawings that conjure up nostalgia for a simpler life. They rank right up there with William Joyce in imaginative detail. I'd highly recommend his books for shared parent-child reading. The grown-ups will like them as much as the kids.

Thanks.

Michael Dirda: Yes, I like Peet's work too, and you're right about his working for Disney. For nostalgia though, you can't beat the illustrations for Homer Price and Centerburg Tales, by Robert McCloskey, I think. He also did Make Way for Ducklings.

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Richmond, Va.: Any suggestions for contemporary, hard-boiled/crime fiction?

I enjoy all the usual suspects, Hammett etc., but would like some characters who don't use rotary phones and ocean liners or spend half the book in a courtroom.

Oh, and some blonde bombshells sprinkled throughout would be great... but that goes without saying.

Thanks!

Michael Dirda: Well, for very noir, there's our very own George Pelecanos, who lives a five minutes drive from here. But have you read Elmore Leonard? Some gorgeous chicks in there, as well as some very mean bad guys, and a style that is a joy to read, or really listen to. Leonard derives in part--at least for his crime novels--from early George V. Higgins: Try The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Note that these are, for the most part, not mysteries, but true noir fiction.

For a lighter spin, try Carl Hiaasen.

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WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

I'd like to throw in a suggestion for Ashburn, Va., the stay-at-home mom from last week who wanted to read more non-fiction to keep her brain from "turning to mush". She should give Isaac Asimov a try. The beauty of this is that, if she likes him, she will have an almost limitless supply of material covering just about everything, and much of it, especially the science, is in the form of short essays collected 17 to a volume. True, some of the science might be out of date, but if she wants to get a basic understanding of everything as a starting point, Asimov could be her guy.

Michael Dirda: A good suggestion. My only reservation lies with Asimov's style, which is at times plain and functional to a fault. But you're right about the hundreds of books out there--I read a few in my day, back when I was gobbling up the Foundation Trilogy and short stories like "Nightfall."

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Lenexa, Kan.:"With rue my heart is laden/For golden friends I had,/For many a rose-lipt maiden/And many a lightfoot lad.//By brooks too broad for leaping/The lightfoot boys are laid;/The rose-lipt girls are sleeping/In fields where roses fade."

A little Housman as I'm off this weekend to a small town in Kansas for my high school class's 50th. A class of 15, now down to 12 -- one good buddy killed outside of an East St. Louis hot spot. Old teammates (won a small-town state basketball championship) and old girlfriends. My wife, involved in a wedding back here, won't be going along. Any advice?

Michael Dirda: Hmmmm. You've earned your right to par-tee! So enjoy yourself and be sure you have a designated driver. Weeping over one's lost youth is always a favorite activity around here.

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Campbell, Ohio: Mr Dirda -- thank you for these valuable chats.

While I was in college, many years ago, when I took a literature class on the detective story, we studied the works of Hammett and Chandler, and over the years, I have read much of both. I have returned to the genre recently and begun to read a lot of Ross MacDonald. I have to say, I find him a better writer, funnier, and with a more layered perspective than the two giants.

Am I wrong? What is the professional view of these three?

Thanks much.

Michael Dirda: Thanks for the comment on the chat. But how valuable? Will I be seeing hundred dollar bills in the mail? That would be nice. If everyone who contributed to the chat or lurked quietly in the background were to send me a hundred dollars, then I could afford to go back to college and take a few theory courses and really speak with authority about Post-Deconstruction. I know it's what you all want.

Teasing, of course. Hammett and Chandler are still the twin gods of hard boiled detective fiction. For a long time Ross M made this a trinity, but his star has somewhat fallen lately. He's still admired, still read, but no longer seems to be a major influence. I share your fondness for his writing, though, and have read a half dozen of his novels--The Chill is my favorite. So have no trepidation about preferring him to H or C, who do seem a bit old fashioned and, now, somewhat over stylized at times.

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Alexandria, Va.: Have you read Tolstoy's Chechen novella "Hadji Murad"? I had it praised to me as some of his best work.

Michael Dirda: Nope. I have a first of the English translation in a handsome 19th century edition. I've wanted to read it, if only to compare it to Taras Bulba, which it somehow resembles in my mind. Harold Bloom thinks the absolute world of it, which probably matters only it you think at least half a world of Harold Bloom. As it happens, I do.

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Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael,

I recall you mentioning the documentary film about Dow Mossman and his book The Stones of Summer. I just saw another interesting biblio-film, Starting Out in the Evening. Frank Langella played the NY author Leonard Schiller (now sadly out of print and forgotten) trying to finish his last novel before he dies. A young graduate student comes into his life and it gets involved. Have you seen it?

Michael Dirda: No, but I remember our film critic Stephen Hunter praising it. It does sound the kind of movie I'd enjoy. Maybe when it's out on DVD.

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washingtonpost.com: Stephen Hunter's review of "Starting Out in the Evening"

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Lexington: Michael, The question of one-book wonders, like Walter Miller, raises an intriguing issue. Most writers known as such actually spend the rest of the lives writing, just not completing a book. Miller left a manuscript behind polished by Terry Bissell - "Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman." Ralph Ellison left thousands of pages behind, still being cobbled together for another edition after the publication of "Juneteenth." Salinger supposedly never quit writing, just publishing. It took Joseph Heller almost ten years after "Catch-22" to finish "Something Happened" and then he published a number of books. The same could be said for Harold Brodkey. These writers were procrastinating finishing a book, not quitting writing. Michael Chabon satirized such writers in Grady Tripp from "Wonder Boys." Is this an acknowledgement that they would be competing against their 'best book,' just simple procrastination, fear of criticism, or, is there a good answer?

Michael Dirda: There are probably different reasons for each. Heller certainly kept up an active literary career--only nobody liked his later books as well as Catch 22. Miller, of course, wrote a number of wonderful stories, such as "The Darfsteller." But I think you're right about the burden of the past. If you write what people say is a great book, a modern classic, it must weigh on you like a lead albatross. You feel you have to live up to it--and probably realize you can't, that you simply got lucky with that first book, probably because it was autobiographical in some way. Whatever happens, you don't want to be a man or woman who peaks too soon.

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Disney, Va.: I enjoyed Neal Gabler's bio of Walt Disney and am wondering if there's anything he left out, something I'd get from other bios of Walt. Is Gabler's considered comprehensive?

Michael Dirda: I reviewed it and I can't imagine there's much more to be said in a biography about WD. Still, you could poke around in other books and see.

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Freising, Germany: I've just finished reading "Stamboul Train" by Graham Greene, and I was impressed by the depths of the characters in such a narrow book. Josef Gruenlich shines as the arch villain when he reflects, "I, Josef Gruenlich, have killed a man. I am clever, he thought, I'll be too much for them", and the chorus line dancer, Coral Musker, gives an insightful summary of the socialist dissident, Dr. Czinner, when she reflects, "If he had lived with somebody who laughed at him a bit, she thought, he would not now be here like this; he wouldn't have taken things so seriously".

According to the introduction, Greene established his reputation with this book, but it's interesting that he classed it as an entertainment in order to distinguish it from more serious work.

The word entertainment isn't used any longer to describe novels, but if "Stamboul Train" is an Entertainment, aren't then most modern bestseller entertainments?

Also, which Greene novels are considered to be his serious works?

Michael Dirda: The serious Greene novels are books like The Power and the Glory; The Heart of the Matter; The End of the Affair. The entertainments are The Third Man, This Gun for Hire, The Ministry of Fear--you can see that the titles are different in character. There's one major book that is a kind of amalgam of the two: Brighton Rock--though it is definitely a novel.

Certainly most of the books on the best seller list are entertainments and are intended to be such. The serious writers--for good or ill--are the ones who get nominated for the prizes you've heard of. James Patterson isn't winning a Pulitzers or Pen Faulkner awards.

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Phobos: In honor of our upcoming Mars landing and subsequent colonization, I plan to read Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy this summer (Red Mars/Blue Mars/Green Mars). Do you like it?

Michael Dirda: I like Stan Robinson, who used to live around here. And I know the Mars trilogy has been very well received. But I haven't read it. Let us know what you think.

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Noir Recommendations: For the reader looking for newer hardboiled writers:

Ken Bruen - Irish writer who explores the dark side of Galway. His Jack Taylor books feature a drunken, drug-addled former policeman who "does favors" for friends that invariably send him further down the drain.

Lawrence Block - His Matthew Scudder books do for NYC what Chandler did for LA. EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE is particularly fine.

Hard Case Crime - A wonderful small publisher that reprints the best, forgotten noir as well as new fiction. The reprints are all rotary dial, but the new fiction is push-button all the way.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Holliston, Mass.: Hi Michael,

I am interested in reading some of the work of Gay Talese. I was referred to "Fame and Obscurity" but others have told me to go another route. What is your expert opinion? Thanks!!

Michael Dirda: Talese is probably best in the short form and collections of his essays and profiles are the way to sample him. So I'd go with F and O. If you want a big book, he has written about the New York Times in The Kingdom and the Power, but I haven't read it. His most famous piece is the one about Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe has just come back from an overseas tour, visiting military bases. She says to her husband, "Joe, you can't imagine what it was like. There were hundred, thousands of people just screaming and yelling like mad." DiMaggio quietly answers, "Yes, I can." Of course, Talese sets it up even better.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Mr. Dirda;

The comments about Hammett caused me to remember a terrific summer I spent reading him and Chandler (while everyone else was in hot and humid Indiana, I was happily in San Francisco and Los Angeles). I've found I tend to read a series or a group of books by an author during the summer. Does this happen to other readers?

Thank you.

Michael Dirda: I suspect it does. One summer I read the four volumes of George Orwell's collected essays and letters. Another I started Will and Ariel Durant's multivolume Story of Civilization. That said, when I find a writer I like, I tend to read a few books, then stop, holding some back in reserve for the future.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hard boiled fiction: For more than 20 years, I have been telling fans of the genre to read The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. In addition to the terrific title (from a poem by Richard Hugo), it has a semi-exotic Montana setting. Crumley did one other excellent Montana-based mystery, The Wrong Case, but The Last Good Kiss is his masterwork. While not a mystery, per se, I also like the hardboiled Mafia story The Pope of Greenwich Village by Vincent Patrick. The book is far better than the lame movie adaptation done some years back.

Michael Dirda: Oh, thank you,thank you. I adore The Last Good Kiss--one of the best and most heartbreaking novels of our time. It really should be better known. Richard Hugo--a model for the detective, I'm told--also wrote one mystery called something like Death and the Good Life, if I'm remembering correctly.

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Wilmington, Del.: Why do most non-fiction books contain subtitles?

Michael Dirda: To get to the other side. No, wait, that's the answer to another question. In truth, if you have a title like Orion's Ghost, who knows what it's actually about without a subtitle?

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Ann Arbor, Michigan: I wonder if you might project ahead 20 years. Imagine what an American literature scholar, or a critic like yourself, would say about the relative merits of the total body of work of Bellow and Updike.

Thank you. I always enjoy your reviews.

Michael Dirda: Only 20 years ahead? They'll still be read and honored. But a hundred years on? Who knows? As regulars know, I tend to believe that nobody will be remembered, except by scholars.

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Roanoke, Va.: Michael, a couple of years ago you were kind enough to give me info on good translations of 19th century Russian writers. My question now is, do you have any updates on the status of Alexander Solzhenitsyn? I know he returned to Russia several years ago and is still living there. I have a book of short stories signed by him (probably in the '70s) and it's one of the special books in my library. Thanks.

Michael Dirda: AS hasn't had very good press lately, and does seem in danger of being regarded as a writer of a particular moment--the end of the Cold War--and a great witness to the Soviet experiment. But he's never been thought of as a consummate artist, and that is usually what it takes for literary immortality.

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Red, Green, Blue Mars trilogy: I read these years ago and didn't like them very much. From what I understand, the author has a background in geology, and it seemed to me that he hauled it out in full force for these books. Heavy on terraforming, light on character-development and plot. I thought they dragged and it was an effort to make myself finish them. Ten years later, I can't even tell you the name of the main character.

Michael Dirda: Okay. As I recall, there are lots and lots of characters.

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In honor of Mars: You could also read "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury, which has some brilliant moments in it. I always loved his descriptions of the Martians and their society -- wish I'd written it first!

Michael Dirda: It is a wonderful book, and that last story--when the earth family looks down into the Martian stream--is just heart-rendingly perfect.

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Winter books vs. summer books: Does anyone else like reading certain books at a particular time of the year? I can't read The Lord of the Rings in summer, for some reason; I enjoy it most on stormy days in front of the fireplace. To Kill A Mockingbird, on the other hand, requires a hot dusty summer day...

Michael Dirda: I once wrote a whole essay, for The Writer magazine, called "Seasons' Readings" in which I went through the 12 months of the year and recommended appropriate titles for each. At Book World I once did a piece on "hot" books, ie. where the temperature plays a major role, starting with things like The Stranger and Farewell, My Lovely.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Re hardboiled detective fiction; Richard Price of "The Wire" fame certainly can do it. The street dialogue is spot-on. I'm currently listening to his much acclaimed (cover-reviewed) "Lush Life." I haven't read anybody since Pelecanos who does it so well.

Michael Dirda: Thanks. I think Pelecanos wrote for The Wire.

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Kenneth Millar: I moved on to MacDonald after I finished my first readings (several more since then) of all the Chandler novels. I liked him a lot, but later realized that I could not remember much about them or tell them apart in my memory. This is not a problem with Chandler. But the mood is a sixties-era update of the Chandler mood, and he was great at deep, dark family secrets. By the way, I heartily recommend Beyond This Point Are Monsters by Mr. Macdonald/Millar's wife, Margaret Millar.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: One book wonders: Two of the major ones of the 20th Century would be Frederick Exley, whose A Fan's Notes is one of the best novels ever written about failure. (Mr. Exley even earned a biography from the Post's Jon Yardley.) My other nominee is Malcolm Lowry, who never did anything to match Under the Volcano and, I think, may have only published one other novel in his lifetime. (Exley wrote two more.) I don't think it's a coincidence that both men were raging alcoholics.

Michael Dirda: I love A Fan's Notes--once paid good money for a proof of it. Actually, the subsequent books do have some wonderful writing in them, though they are rather ramshackle compared to Notes. Lowry wrote a lot, but much of it is vaguely experimental or reminiscent of Volcano, and I've tried in vain to like it.

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Baltimore, Md.: Last week someone cited Walter M. Miller's Canticle for Leibowitz as an example of a one hit wonder. In truth, Miller was an excellent writer of short fiction and Canticle was a compilation of three novella length pieces. I wonder whether the reader has read the sequel, St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. A book that I think of as similar to Leibowitz is Pavane by Keith Roberts.

I've been enjoying simultaneously A.N. Wilson's The Victorians, which I read on my commuter train and Classics for Pleasure which I read in the evening before bed. I read your piece about Zola last night, in which you refer to Wilson's views about the Debacle. I was pleased that you referenced Wilson, a writer I quite admired and was amazed at the coincidence of seeing the reference to him while I was reading the book. Then this morning, to my considerable surprise, I came to Wilson's brief discussion of Zola's Debacle in the Victorians. Talk about synchronicity! I think I have no choice but to read Debacle next.

Michael Dirda: Easy answer: I reviewed Wilson's The Victorians and remembered his comment on Le Debacle, so stuck into the Zola essay. You need to read Germinal or L'Assommoir first.

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Washington, D.C.: Last week, a reader asked about how to go about finding interesting non-fiction books to read. I used to volunteer on a local radio show in New York that focused largely on author interviews. Unlike the book review section of a newspaper that probably has an obligation to include certain important books just because they are important, we often passed on the ones we didn't like. And we included a lot of non-fiction. It is hard to spend 22 minutes talking to an author about a novel without giving away too much plot (historical fiction excepted, of course), but you can have loads of fun with all sorts of non-fiction. I wrote interview cheat sheets for books about everything from the number zero, bird migration, religious diversity in America, JP Morgan, Europe's fascination with porcelain, and many more. I recommend finding a show like this and taking a look at anything sounds interesting.

The internet means you don't have to limit yourself to local shows. You may even find the first chapter of the book on the website.

The show I worked on is nearest and dearest to my heart, and I expect that being in New York gave us access to more authors than many other cities, but don't let my prejudices limit your search.

Here is a link to the archives of what is now called " The Leonard Lopate Show." Way back when, we called it "New York and Company."

P.S. 22 minutes is a "short half" for the segment that covered 12:45 to 1:15 but lost time for the news at the top of the hour. I think the show's format has changed to eliminate the distinction between a short half and a long half (1:15 to 1:45 - no news), but the jargon sure was fun. And the volunteers got to take home books - lots and lots of books. Many of the hardcovers in my library date from those days.

washingtonpost.com: As a longtime producer for The Diane Rehm Show, I'll give her archives a plug here too... - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: Many thanks for both recommendations.

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James Crumley: I made the Bruen, Block recommendations, and I can't believe I forgot Crumley. He is the best choice from among the three. The first sentence of THE LAST GOOD KISS is among my favorite opening sentences in crime fiction:

"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

That sentence, as lighthearted as it may sound, becomes heartbreaking by the end of the book.

I also wouldn't pass up DANCING BEAR. That one stuck with me long after closing the cover.

I swear, my recommendation has nothing to do with my being a Montana native. (But I do now know that we are exotic!)

Michael Dirda: Many thanks, and much agreement.

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Annapolis, Md.: Hi, Michael. As part of a Midwestern family trip, I made a long-awaited pilgrimage to Thurber House on Monday. Since you once mentioned that you spoke there, I looked for your picture on the "wall of fame." Imagine my surprise when I found it in the "upstairs facility", aka the loo. You are, however, in good company; Garrison Keillor's photo is also there, among others.

Michael Dirda: I didn't know this and am not sure that I want to know this now. Sigh.

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Alexandria, Virginia: I just finished the Deptford trilogy by Davies and now have developed an interest in Jungian psychology. Which book do you recommend by Jung?

Also I want to recommend Ratoons by Daphne Rooke. I read a TLS review about a year ago and just read the book. It's a pre-apartheid novel about sugar cane growers in South Africa - very interesting.

Michael Dirda: For Jung: I'd suggest starting with Anthony Storry's C.G. Jung in the Modern Masters series. After that I'd try one of the selections from the psychologist; one is compiled by Storr, another by Joseph Campbell, and there's a third in Modern Library. I also think you would enjoy a book of Jung passages called Psychological Reflections--the later edition gathers quotes from all his work.

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Procrastination and Oblamov: I thoroughly enjoyed Slate's series on procrastination and avoided many hours of work perusing the articles. There was one on great novels of procrastination - it surprised me that Goncharev's Oblamov was not on the list. I read that a couple of years ago and see it as a sublime example of procrastination in literature. What are your thoughts on that Russian classic?

washingtonpost.com: Procrastination Lit (Slate, May 13)

Michael Dirda: I love the book, and there's an essay on it in Classics for Pleasure.

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New Lenox, Ill: Re: Season's Readings - Do you remember what title you recommended for May? Thank you.

Michael Dirda: Might have been Pride and Prejudice.

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Smyrna, Del.: Hi Michael,

Can you recommend a biography of Ernest Hemingway? Also, what is your favorite Hemingway novel? Just returned from Paris, and wonder if you have a read "A Moveable Feast"?

Thank you!

Michael Dirda: A Moveable Feast is wonderful; it's the best post-war Hemingway work. I'm pretty conventional--I think The Sun Also Rises is his best novel. As for a biography: Carlos Baker or Kenneth Lynn. Probably Lynn.

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Auburn, Maine: Michael,

I took the advice of one who suggested reading certain works out loud to get more of the flavor of Paradise Lost -- a great piece of advice. I'm currently doing the same with Whitman's Leaves of Grass (a first read) and am discovering which works are more enjoyable than others. There's just something special about hearing the words and enjoying them for their own sake, in addition to the content.

What might you recommend as needing an out-loud read, whether a barbaric Yawp or otherwise?

Michael Dirda: Vachel Lindsay--that's kind of a joke, since he was very well known for his performances. The Kallyope Yell, for instance.

I think T.S. Eliot reads well aloud. And Frost. Essentially any poet who isn't too abstract or philosophical.

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Re, Noir, Kids' lit and other things: For the person looking for contemporary noir, although written in our time, James Ellroy's books are set in the 50's and are very enjoyable. He taps into the atmosphere and brutality in a way a lot of authors can't. Perhaps this is due to his own family's tragic history. Regarding Treasure Island, I finished it this past week and loved every bit of it as much as I did as a kid. My friends insist it's because I haven't grown up, I'll insist it's because the book is great. With the current crop of adventure flicks on the horizon, my thoughts and those of others on a previous chat turn to literary forerunners of Indiana Jones. In particular, I am thinking of H. Rider Haggard of whose works I've only read, so far, "She" and "King Solomon's Mines." They are remarkably imaginative and well worth finding. Some are available on Project Gutenberg. Speaking of imaginative books ostensibly for kids, Roald Dahl was a brilliant writer whose stories are some of the most wickedly enjoyable I've ever read. While some are definitely more kid friendly, others are certainly not. Collections of his short stories hold places of honor on my book shelves. Finally, I wanted to include a passage from Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain's memoirs of the last days of the Civil War, "The Passing of the Army." I however, don't have it in front of me. This was to have been for the person seeking a reintroduction to non-fiction. Chamberlain was a brilliant man and very entertaining writer. His descriptions of action are evocative, and his observations of himself and his fellow soldiers paint brilliant, critical portraits of the people who so deeply influenced our history.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: I was interested in your review about Charles Fort, The Man Who Invented the Supernatural. I've never heard of him before, but was interested because most of the reading I do is in metaphysics. Thanks, will try to read something by him.

Michael Dirda: You're welcome. Try The Book of the Damned too.

And, friends, I must now dash away to the doctor's. Till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!

P.S. Sorry I didn't get to all the questions--there were a lot today.

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washingtonpost.com: For more reading recommendations, join Book World's Ron Charles next Tuesday for a special Book World Live discussion on summer reading.

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