Dirda on Books

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Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, May 28, 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 28.

A transcript follows.

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Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's bright, but cool day here in Washington, and I've been busily going to the bank, the barber's--one of the few reliable pleasures of life is getting a haircut from an Italian barber named Natale--and the drug store. I've just paid my bills, and balanced my check book. Balanced doesn't seem the mot juste, however: More like seen how much or how little money I have left in the account and figuring out where I'm going to get more.

Today is a sad day in American letters. Today's Post announces the death of George Garrett, one of the most beloved writers and teachers in the country, and a friend or mentor to many of our best authors. I remember a wonderful interview I once did with George, at the end of which he sang the praises of Eliot's poems read by Alec Guinness. A week later there arrived in the mail two cassettes--Garrett had copied his original for me. A real gentleman. I was most amused when he told me that as a young man he had written the script for one of the world's worst horror movies: "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster," sometimes called "Mars Invades Puerto Rico." He was clearly a man of many parts and will be missed.

Well, it's been a busy day for me already, running around from hither and yon. I should be outside planting coleus, cutting peonies, repotting this and that, and generally avoiding a coronary by gardening. Either that or relaxing on a chaise longue with some fun novel or while enjoying a good poet. Oh well, summer awaits in a few more weeks and I'll have time for such pleasures.

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Michael Dirda: Oops, sent that too soon. Oh well, let's look at this week's questions.

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Brookland, D.C.: Fresh Air re-aired Terry Gross's most recent interview with Michael Chabon last week. He talked a lot about his love of comics and genre fiction, and one work he singled out was L. Sprague de Camp's LEST DARKNESS FALL. It sounded intriguing. Do you have thoughts on the book?

Michael Dirda: I read the book years ago--but remember very little of it. Something about an alternate history, with the Church in control, if I remember correctly. De Camp lived to a great old age, but was best known for the series he wrote with Fletcher Pratt called The Incompleat Enchanter--about scientists from our time who wander into various realms of faery. I thought it was an ingenious idea at 12. I remember one title: The Castle of Iron, set I think among the Norse gods and goddesses.

Chabon and I do share a love for comics and genre fiction.

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washingtonpost.com: George Garrett's obituary (Washington Post, May 28)

Michael Dirda: Elizabeth or Paul, my producers, have sent this in.

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wonderful school program: We were in Maine last weekend, where an acquaintance told us of a wonderful custom at her child's grade school: instead of being inundated with sweets and disruption on a child's birthday, the birthday child is given the opportunity of contributing a book to the school library. Wish more schools would do this! The child in this case was the son of a schooner captain and donated a book about a child growing up on a whaler. No couch potatoes there!

Michael Dirda: What a nice idea! It does sound anti-American though for a child to give rather than receive on his or her birthday.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Asked recently by someone what I thought the three greatest novels are, I said "Remembrance of Things Past," "The Tale of Genji," and "The Brothers Karamazov." Proust has long been my favorite as tender, early memories are my most prized emotions. The "Tale of Genji" -- which I have read closely -- is my second choice surely because of your influence. (I do think it's a great choice -- Asians seem to be first with many things: China even had a literary society back in the Tang period, a time roughly equivalent to the heyday of the Mayans).

As to "Brothers-K," I especially favor it because each of the four brothers seem to marvelously represent archetypal life-choices: hedonism, cold intellectualism, benign altruism, and malformed cruelty. What novels might you consider in the third slot? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: Well, I admire The Brothers K for much the same reasons as you, though my personal favorite among Dostoevsky's novels is Crime and Punishment. There but for the grace of god. . . .

If I had to pick a third novel after Proust and Genji, it would have to be Don Quixote. It's not a real favorite of mine, but it is immensely influential and a book that repays rereading. But there are so many good candidates: War and Peace, Ulysses, Absalom! Absalom!, Tristram Shandy, The Magic Mountain, Moby-Dick. . . .

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"I should be outside planting coleus": May I put in a plug for your colleague Adrian Higgins' book on gardening in the (very difficult) DC area? He is a godsend to those of us who are frustrated when plants labeled "full sun, zone 5-9" sizzle and die here. I would be lost without his weekly chats.

Michael Dirda: Adrian used to have his desk about 20 feet from mine. I still see him occasionally when I visit the Post and he is a godsend, as you say. I'll bet you didn't know that his brother was an actor--first name escapes me--but that he was the star of Peter Greenaway's cult film, The Draughtsman's Contract.

Not to diminish Adrian a whit, I still miss Henry Mitchell. He was such a brilliant, low-key writer and his Essential Earthman and Any Day columns were fun to read even if you didn't care about anything with chlorophyll in it. He used to walk by Book World and bark--like a dog--at my colleague Reid Beddow, who would bark back. Ah, journalism! It's not as it once was.

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Lexington: Michael, This is unclassifiable: There are some, in this case the French (!) that consider smell of books important to their reading experience. So, CafeScribe, where books can be downloaded, is offering a sticker that gives off the smell of musty old books! Just attach it to your electronic reader.

Michael Dirda: This is weird. That musty smell is usually mold or rotted leather. Most bookmen if they detect that mildewy smell know that the books are likely ruined or on the verge of being so.

The one time I have noticed that the smell of books meant a lot to me is purely personal. I inherited my beloved high school French teacher's books, after Bill was killed in an automobile accident in Mexico in his early thirties. Even now I can pick up one of his French books and smell the faint fragrance of cigarette smoke in the pages, and that smell brings back a little of one of the half dozen people who most shaped my life.

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WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda,

Thank you for allowing us to pick your brain every week.

I've been meaning to ask about William S. Burroughs. Years ago, when I was working in a second-hand bookstore, I read his "Cities of the Red Night" and dismissed it as drug-fueled stream-of-consciousness ravings. I felt that "art" involves a requirement to work within a set of rules (e.g., the restrictions of the sonnet form) and that reports of dreams and drug trips can't be held to any kind of objective standard. Recently, however, I read an article by Robert Fulford, a well-known Canadian political and arts pundit (I don't know if he's known at all in your country), and learned that Burroughs used a "cut-up technique" which involved slicing through the pages of two unrelated books and then putting the "cut pages side by side" to see "what wild ideas this random combination created". He apparently "learned this system from an unknown Canadian artist and writer" named Brion Gysin. Even though I'm fairly conservative in my tastes, I find this amusing because it somehow reminds me of the "buzzword generators" people passed around back in my office-job days. So where do you stand on Mr. Burroughs and similar practitioners of random writing?

P.S.: I've taken the liberty of e-mailing you the Robert Fulford article, but feel free to delete it without even looking at it if you prefer.

Michael Dirda: I received the article about an hour ago, and only glanced at it. Burroughs' cut-up technique is well known, and Bryon Gysin's name isn't wholly forgotten either--at least among beat aficionados. I once was lucky enough to share a panel with Robert Fulford--it was on G.K. Chesterton--and liked him immensely. He's quite an eminence in Canadian letters--as well as a boyhood friend of the late Glenn Gould.

I tend to be something of a classicist about technique myself. That is, I tend to practice writing that aims for clarity and wit, above all. But I deeply admire and try to cheerlead for more innovative writing. The French Oulipo with its use of constraints; the experiments of B.S. Johnson (New Directions has just republished his novel in a box--loose sheets that can be arranged in any order); books like An Anecdoted Topography of Chance and The Mezzanine and Pale Fire--where the notes are as important as the main text, etc etc. Burroughs is part of that crowd.

Still, I don't think he's a particularly great writer.

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Woodlawn, Va.: Hi Michael,

I just read Mr. Garrett's obituary. I'm ashamed to admit I know nothing about him, but I'm intrigued by the subject of his novel, "Do Lord, Remember Me" -- described by the Post as "a southern gothic novel about a revivalist preacher." I grew up in Georgia in a Southern Baptist church and am pre-disposed to be interested. Would you recommend I give it a try?

Thanks.

Michael Dirda: I haven't read this one, but anything by Garrett would be worth your while. Death of the Fox is by far his best known novel.

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"Peter Greenaway's cult film":...is redundant.

washingtonpost.com: Hmm - he does look like Adrian: Anthony Higgins in The Draughtsman's Contract

Michael Dirda: Thanks, Elizabeth.

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Henry Mitchell: right you are, he was in a class by himself, not to dis my beloved Adrian. My mother is still in mourning for HM.

Michael Dirda: As are we all.

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washingtonpost.com: You can see Mitchell's work here: Henry Mitchell's The Essential Earthman (Google Books)

Michael Dirda: Thanks, Elizabeth. True story: The man who talked Henry into allowing collections of his columns was an editor at Indiana University Press. The last book he commissioned before he retired was my first, Readings. He admired my writing and wanted to publish it. It was that simple--he came to me. That doesn't happen much to writers these days.

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Friendship Heights: Good afternoon, Mr Dirda,

Here's hoping that you, Seamus, Cinnamon and family are well--

I just finished "Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson. It was enthralling, and I was more interested in the architecture involved in the Fair, less than in the first serial murderer. Have you read it?

Do you like histories?

Thank you

Michael Dirda: Haven't read it, but do like history. Is this about the World's Fair--I remember a book about a serial murderer--was it H.H. Holmes--and the fair. Could this be the book?

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Three favorite novels: Lenexa, Kan., asks about three greatest novels...that makes me wonder whether my three favorite novels would also be considered great novels:

--One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

--Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

--A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Michael Dirda: The Garcia Marquez has a good claim to greatness; the others are more specialized tastes, so to speak. Most people would pick Passage to India for Forster, or Howards End.

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Annapolis, Md.: Regarding the contemporary noir recommendations from last week: I was surprised that no one mentioned John D. MacDonald, especially the Travis McGee novels. Is it because his star has fallen? Because the 60s and 70s aren't all that contemporary anymore? Or is he not all that noir? I find that people have widely varying definitions of crime noir; some people mean anything darker than Agatha Christie, others say that anything with a detective or police protagonist is automatically excluded (these are the Jim Thompson fans).

Readers should try the "hardboiled historicals" by Max Allan Collins, in which his hero Nathan Heller works on, or on the fringes of, major historical crimes (the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Black Dahlia case, the death of James Forrestal). Heller is as tough as they come, the true-crime solutions are ingenious, and the period details are spectacular.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I don't think of JDM's Travis McGees as particularly hard-boiled; in fact, they're kind of soft-boiled, but very well done and entertaining, almost light-hearted really. He did, however, write some dark noirish books earlier in his career: The Executioners--about a teenaged gang--and the novel that became the film Cape Fear.

I've never read Collins, but do remember that he is an authority on Dick Tracy and, I believe, even wrote some of the comic strips for a while.

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The Essential Earthman: Thank you for bringing this title to my attention...I hope it is still in print. It would make a great Father's Day present for my dad.

Michael Dirda: I'm sure you can find it through some out of print dealer, if need be. There are three Mitchell collections--two about gardening, one about daily life.

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Richmond, Va.: You wrote - "Even now I can pick up one of his French books and smell the faint fragrance of cigarette smoke in the pages, and that smell brings back a little of one of the half dozen people who most shaped my life."

I wonder if there are works which you appreciate, not necessarily for their content, but for the memories they evoke from when you first read them? For me there are several.

- Easy Rollins books by Walter Moseley for a flawed manual to controlling a damaged rudder in turbulent seas.

- "Little John" by Howard Owen (a masterful little book, if you haven't read it) which came along at crossroads in my life and helped put many things in perspective.

- William S. Burroughs for early-20's debauchery.

- Robert Lewis Stevenson for pre-adolescent escapism.

But, alas, I still can't abide by Chaucer for fear of the eye of a high school English teacher. A very evil eye. Cripes!

Michael Dirda: What That Aprille . . .

The Owen books sounds intriguing. How did it help you at this crisis point?

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Friendship Heights: Yes, that is the book. I don't often read histories, but this one was actually pretty good--the 1893 Chicago World's Fair had the first Ferris wheel and electric incandescent lights, too.

Best regards!

Michael Dirda: Thanks. H.H. Holmes became the pseudonym used by the writer and mystery critic Anthony Boucher. I'm a fan of true crime writing, William Roughead and Edmund Pearson, and of the British Trials series in particular. I have one volume on The Trial of Neill Cream--his has always seemed to me a particularly sinister name.

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Palookaville: For me, Middlemarch would probably make the short list of finalists for three top novels. When I read it years ago, I thought it would be the beginning of a major fixation on Eliot, but I didn't admire The Mill on the Floss nearly as much and haven't gotten around to the others. I will say that she is probably the least funny of any great novelist. I can't remember a single joke in MM.

Also, Madame Bovary would have to be up there.

Michael Dirda: I certainly think MB a perfect novel, and I too love Middlemarch--it's so true to life (he said blandly). I mean when the young doctor marries the empty-headed but beautiful girl, and his life is utterly ruined. And the end about how our lives are better than they might be because of those "who rest in unvisited tombs." A wonderful book. But, no, Marian Evans wasn't a great wit. Still, I never missed that, since she has so much else going on in the book.

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Theophyla, Conn.: No, the de Camp was set in the late days of the Western Roman Empire, with Gothic Emperors ruling from Ravenna. A modern (1930s) guy, Martin Padway, finds himself transported back in time and manages to stave off Constantine. (In the process he "invents" printing, the semaphore, and the telescope.)

Michael Dirda: Okay, that sounds right too. I suspect I was thinking of Gather Darkness!

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Ventadorn, France: Bonjour, Michael.

You've been getting some rather tactile observations today -- gardens, pets, the smells of books. Here's another.

I have just ordered a book titled The Hands of the Tongue: Essays on Deviant Speech. I love the title, don't you? It might be something you'd like to explore, since you are a medievalist by training. The essays discuss the ways in which certain kinds of speech disrupt the moral and social order of medieval life. But what compels me is the metaphor embedded in the book's title: "To attribute hands to the tongue is to ascribe power to the instrument of speech, and through it to speech itself. Like the sword and fire, two central sapiential and biblical figures for the tongue recast endlessly in medieval texts, this metaphor conveys the tongue's power to destroy life as well as to preserve it. The hands also insist upon the corporeality of the tongue as the instrument of speech and so upon its capacity to act: its words are deeds with consequences for speakers and listeners. . . ." -from the Introduction.

I find myself interested in books that explore the connections between the tactile/physical and the philosophical. When I read, I want to encounter a playful, original mind, a writer who ranges over many subjects, but whose real ability is to look closely, with what can only be love, at his or her subject. Here are a few of my loves: Burton (Anatomy of Melancholy), Auden (The Dyer's Hand), Adam Phillips, etc. Can you add to my list?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. A very suggestive email. But let's see: I wonder if you know the books of Gaston Bachelard. His most famous ones are devoted to reading literature in terms of the four classical elements. Hence The Poetics of Space, Water and Reverie, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, etc.

Deviant speech does bring to mind a book called Le Schizo et les langues--this is the memoir of a guy who became incapable of speaking his native English and could only speak in foreign languages. It was a very hot book among the early deconstructionists, and I remember reading part of it.

There's also historical works about the smells of London and novels like Perfume, about a guy without a sense of smell.

Sapiential--that's a word I don't hear much any more.

It was very big in patristic exegesis. I would guess that you must be interested in the troubadours--given your place of origin.

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Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael,

Are you familiar with Maurice Hewlett and his novel Forest Lovers?

Michael Dirda: Only that Hemingway makes fun of it in The Sun Also Rises.

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Theophyla, Conn.: Gather, Darkness is a wonderful Fritz Lieber, set in a future theocratic dark age. Lots of good pseudo-witchcraft used by a liberal insurrection...

Michael Dirda: Yes, I remember the cowled monks on the cover of the paperback. In fact, I own the issue of Weird Tales or Startling Stories in which it or part of it appears.

I do find that thinking about these old books of childhood makes me want to reread them. This is sometimes a wonderful, sometimes a disconcerting experience if actually undertaken.

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Richmond, Va.: This is a highly personal interpretation, a projection if you will, of "Little John," but it is an account of very average folks navigating both mundane and extreme situations as best as possible.

The choices we make may not be the best, but they are the best we can make. It is a book I return to often... maybe not often enough.

Michael Dirda: Hmmmm. Many thanks. I have trouble navigating even the most placid waters.

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Forms of writing: Are there authors who were able to write in multiple genres and do it well? I'm not just talking about, for example, Twain's ability to write engaging travelogues as well as his novels and stories. Rather, I'm talking about someone who could write a gothic horror novel and then write a comedy, or something like that? I'm having trouble thinking of examples, but that may be to my own rank ignorance.

Michael Dirda: Sure, many writers. Russell Hoban--who I mention fairly often--wrote masterpieces for little kids (Bread and Jam fro Frances), older kids (The Mouse and His Child) and adults (Riddley Walker). Dickens wrote every kind of story. In truth, most professional writers during the heyday of magazine fiction could turn out almost any kind of tale--romance, horror, mystery, etc etc. You were a writer, you wrote for whatever market would pay you.

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Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): Larson's "Devil in the White City" is about the murdered H. H. Holmes, and is an excellent overview of both the difficulties surrounding the Chicago World's Fair and the murders committed by Holmes in the city before and during the fair. Larson makes the interesting connection that many of Holmes's victims - young single women who found themselves newly independent and employable due to changes in the workplace - were attracted to Chicago by the prospect of the forthcoming fair and the jobs that would be available to them.

Simon Winchester's histories are excellent: his account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary is the most famous, but I enjoyed his book on Krakatoa even more.

And a plug, if I may, for Michael Chabon's recent collection of essays, "Maps and Legends". Witty, intelligent, and learned, he has some very interesting and thoughtful comments to make about the fortunes (alas, not as healthy as they should be) of genre fiction and the short story, both of which have, he argues, been given the short stick by readers and publishers alike. I particularly enjoyed his appreciative chapters on Sherlock Holmes and on M. R. James's ghost stories.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. I'll have to get a copy, though I think I've probably read most of the pieces--the James was an introduction to a paperback selection, the Holmes appeared in the New York Review of Books, etc etc. Nothing wrong with gathering up disjecta membra, though. A nice macabre image, in its way.

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Edmonton, AB: For Auburn, Maine from last week:

On the topic of poetry to read out loud, and in the vein of the "barbaric yawp," I can't resist putting in a word for A.C. Swinburne.

A virtuoso in crafting rhyme and meter, he was sometimes criticized for producing verse that was all style and no substance. But what fun! The self-parodic poem "Nephelidia," Swinburne's defiant response to the criticism, is the best of all:

"Only this oracle opens Olympian,/in mystical moods and triangular tenses--/"Life is the lust of a lamp for the light/That is dark till the dawn of the day when we die.'"

Apparently, it's the most alliterative poem in the English language. Reading it aloud feels like running down a hillside. Much safer, though.

Michael Dirda: Oh, I love Swinburne, exchanging "the lilies and languor of virtue for the raptures and roses of vice." And remember that the Mothers of Invention had a song called The Swinburne Stomp, where they recited part of Atalanta in Calydon while making silly sounds with kazoos and other instruments.

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Maryland: We rushed out and got your book Readings because you said it has a list of recommended children's books. We had only read a few of the books listed. We are having so much fun working our way through the books listed!

Michael Dirda: Hey, that's wonderful. I'm glad you're enjoying the recommendations.

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Washington, D.C.: Have you tried the new Amazon Kindle? If so, I would be interested in your reaction (or the reaction of any participants in this forum).

Michael Dirda: I tried it once, and I could see that it could actually catch on--once you got used to the slight hesitation as you turned the page, ie. pressed a button to make the next screen image appear. But I can't say that I"ve seen many people carrying Kindles on the subway. In fact, I don't think I"ve seen any. Has it died on the vine?

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Cross-Genre Writers: Dan Simmons can do SF, horror, fantasy and historical fiction. All quite well at that.

Graham Greene could write thrillers just as well as his "serious" works. Not to mention the satire of OUR MAN IN HAVANA.

GK Chesterton wrote biography, theology/apologia, mystery and fantasy.

I'm sure there are many, many more, but those spring to mind.

Michael Dirda: Very good choices.

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Freising, Germany: Have you ever had a chance to read or review anything from Amitav Ghosh?

I'd always read about the British colonial period from the perspective of the British, and even if E.M. Forster included negative aspects in the behavior of the colonial masters, an aura of enchantment and perhaps hope was still present. However, It seems that some of the colonized were not enamored of the British.

Hence, I was surprised when in 2001 Amitav Ghosh refused the Commonwealth's Best Book Award for his novel, "The Glass Palace". Ghosh wrote, "The issue of how the past is to be remembered lies at the heart of The Glass Palace and I feel that I would be betraying the spirit of my book if I were to allow it to be incorporated within that particular memorialization of Empire that passes under the rubric of 'the Commonwealth'".

Michael Dirda: Alas, no. I've meant to, but haven't. The passage you cite makes him sound very appealing.

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Silver Spring: Have you ever read the Miles Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold? They have won several Hugo and Nebula awards, but also appeal to non-science fiction readers (like me) and are quite funny. Miles is the kind of incredibly smart, witty, charming character that I think you would like!

Michael Dirda: I haven't read these, partly because I'd always heard that Bujold tended to write hard sf, which is not the kind I usually like. But Miles sounds appealing--in fact, the name reminds me of the ingenious, laid back spy of Brian Garfield's book and movie Hopscotch (Walter Matthau in the film).

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Binx Bolling: How do you rate Walker Percy as a novelist?

Michael Dirda: I'd rate him as pretty much forgotten--aside from The Moviegoer. And even that isn't as well known as it once was. This doesn't mean that Percy isn't a fine writer--he's just in the usual trough following an author's death. That said, I find The Moviegoer an appealing book, and somewhat mysterious one, but haven't really read much beyond that aside from a clutch of essays. He's got good ones on New Orleans and bourbon.

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Pittsburgh: David Dodge was a cross-genre writer, publishing both travel memoirs and suspense novels.

Michael Dirda: Yes, indeed. After I saw the wonderful film when I was about 16, I tracked down his novel To Catch a Thief and read it with pleasure. I may even have read another, though I'm not sure of this. Gosh, how is it you remember David Dodge?

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Rutland, Vt.: Just a non-literary follow up. Half of that 1893 World's Fair Ferris wheel became the overhead support for a bridge across the Hudson on Rte 87 north of Albany NY. Very impressive. Must have been a great ride!

Michael Dirda: Neat.

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Venus: Hello, Michael. Would you please recommend a good book (thorough, unsparing, yet balanced) about the Clinton presidency? Perhaps it's too soon, and one hasn't been written yet?

Thank you.

Michael Dirda: Is there such a thing? I'd have to ask my political reporter colleagues for advice on that.

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Early Oates, Va.: I've finally started reading a collection of early Joyce Carol Oates stories. I picked up the book, "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" back in the mid-1990s, during one of the author's appearances at Politics and Prose. I wasn't too far out of college then and had good memories of the title story, which I'd read while at school.

I've read the first two entries in the collection, and, well, let's just say that I'm not as bowled over by them as I remember being by the title story.

Do you have any impression of Oates' early works? Are they more well regarded than her later stuff? I'll press on for now, but I'm beginning to think the book will go back on the shelf for another 15 years.

Michael Dirda: Oates has written a lot, and some of work is obviously going to be less inspired. You may have landed upon some duds. In my experience, Oates is a pretty reliable writer.

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Book club recommendations: What books would you recommend for a mother-daughter book club composed of a group of above grade-level 14 year old girls and their mothers, who all love to read?

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy; Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass; Joan Aiken's Dido Twite novels; Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night.

It's always hard for me to think mother-daughter, since I only have sons.

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Elmore Leonard: He's now known for his thrillers, but he got his start writing westerns --- a genre now all but forgotten.

Michael Dirda: Yes. I suppose that westerns really haven't had much readership since Louis L'Amour died. There are a few mainstream westerns, of course, like Little Big Man and Desperadoes and Blood Meridian, all of which are admired without being thought of as genre westerns.

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Michael Dirda: And that's it for this week's session of Dirda on Books! Time for all of us to move along and go outside or answer email or, maybe, even read a book. Till next Wednesday at 2, keep reading!

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