Dirda on Books
Wednesday, June 18, 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
An archive of his discussions is available
Dirda was online Wednesday, June 18.
A transcript follows.
Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books, as authoritative as that masterly guide to the upper echelons of the East European peerage, Burda on Dukes. Oh, that's just terrible.
Anyway, it's--mirabile dictu--another Wednesday, another opening, another show. Calm, calm yourself, my boy.
The weather is coolish today, a bit overcast, and with the threat but not the likelihood of rain. Everyone should duly mark their calendars.
But enough of these profundities. Let's look at this week's questions, comments, posts, and lintels. Well, maybe not the last.
Albuquerque, N.M.: Do you have an opinion about James Clavell's historical fiction? Sharon Kay Penman's? They might be a bit too bestseller-y for your tastes. Any historical fiction you'd recommend?
Michael Dirda: Years ago, when I was a teenager, I read Clavell's prisoner of war novel King Rat--and thought it excellent. I still remember the little prose poem at the end with the last phrase "among the rats." My sense is that Clavell is a very good popular historical novelist, particularly in his earlier books. I know of Penman's work but don't know it.
As for historical fiction I'd recommend. Among current practitioners: Bernard Cornwell writes excellent adventures (Sharp is the main series, set during the Napoleonic era, but there are others). Among writers of the past I'd suggest: Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Patrick O'Brian, C.S. Forester, Robert Graves, Mary Renault, Georgette Heyer.
New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Lenexa on Marilyn Monroe - Yes, indeed, wouldn't that have been wonderful if they'd have given her the role of Grushenka.
I read "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson, which is an important book of environmentalism. "For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death...The most determined effort should be made to eliminate those carcinogens that now contaminate our food, our water supplies, and our atmosphere, because these provide the most dangerous type of contact - minute exposures, repeated over and over throughout the years."
Michael Dirda: Your quotation says it all. But may I point out that Rachel Carson lived in my neighborhood of Silver Spring? Long before my time, but there are, or at least were, neighbors who remembered her.
Lenexa, Kan.: Tony Earley, who teaches at Vanderbilt, made quite a splash eight years ago with his first novel, "Jim the Boy." I had actually forgotten about it, but when "The Blue Star" came out this year (continuing the story of Jim), and was so highly praised, I decided to catch up. I just finished "Jim the Boy" -- really enjoyed it -- and am now beginning "The Blue Star." Have you reviewed or had a chance to read him? Thanks as always.
washingtonpost.com: Ron Charles reviewed"The Blue Star" for Book World on March 16.
Michael Dirda: Note the review by my colleague Ron Charles, who writes a brilliant fiction review every week for Book World, while also working as an editor there. I used to do something like this myself, so know what focus it takes. But Ron is all the more remarkable in that he specializes in fiction--I couldn't read a novel a week unless my life depended on it. To tell you the truth, I find fiction absolutely grueling to read--at least when I start. All that yearning and heartbreak and death and unhappiness and pain. Who can bear it, except occasionally? This is why I tend to like light novels, classics and genre fiction. One can read these with detachment, rather than emotional involvement. This isn't true for a first read of a classic, but once you know what's going to happen to Anna or Emma or Swann--it can be a wonderful experience to see how the author guides you through their lives.
Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael,
I enjoyed your review of The Delighted States. That has to be the most polite negative review that I have read.
I am reading the Lycett biography of A. Conan Doyle and note that early in his writing career ACD would know he was a success when he could stop trying to sell things that he had written and only write when he had an order. Are you able to get orders for your writing? Where can I read more Dirda during the Book World hiatus?
washingtonpost.com: Dirda on "The Delighted States" (Book World, June 15)
Michael Dirda: I write for various places, on an occasional basis. This past weekend, for instance, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on Heinrich Heine's Travel Pictures (Reisebilder) and the Chronicle Review of the Chronicle of Higher Education a longish essay on James Bond. I have pieces forthcoming in the New York Review of Books, the Barnes and Noble Review (online) and the next issue of the American Scholar. There are also various introductions--to a reissue of Nabokov's Real Life of Sebastian Knight (New Directions, July) and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey (Barnes and Noble classics). As I wrote to an old friend: I write to keep the wolf from the door, and to help fend off the Giant Despair.
Still, my main anchor is Book World. It comes first, if only because I need to write something every week--except for this summer, when I'll probably work on something unpublishable, such as a continuation of An Open Book or even a novel.
Gotham, New York: Selected (rather than collected) letters?
A very simple question: how does one approach epistolary literature? It seems that so many volumes of letters are collected, rather than selected, making it difficult to wade into. Are there any anthologies of letters that you recommend or fairly narrow volumes you recommend?
I love Rimbaud's line "Je est un autre"--I know that's in one of his letters somewhere.
Michael Dirda: Lawrence Durrell--of Alexandria Quartet fame--has a wonderful poem with this Rimbaud title.
How does one approach epistolary literature? Well, I just start at page one and read. The best collections of letters are usually well annotated, or offer connecting biographical material when needed. Among my favorites are: The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis and now amplified by Merlin Holland (Wilde's grandson). The Edmund Wilson-Vladimir Nabokov Letters, edited by Simon Karlinsky. The Letters of Anton Chehkov, again edited by Karlinsky. The two-volumes of Flaubert's Letters, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller. If you read French, there's a wonderful volume of extracts from Flaubert's correspondence focusing on his esthetic ideals: Preface a la vie de'ecrivain. Evelyn Waugh's correspondence with Nancy Mitford is delightful. But really, there are many good collections. I love the intimacy of letters, of the desire to entertain a distant friend or lover, the insight into the angst of the creative life. So just plunge in.
Cornwell?: After watching the Sharpe movies on DVD, I checked out Cornwell's novels and was disappointed. Perhaps I was expecting another Patrick O'Brian or Mary Stewart, but I found Cornwell wooden.
Michael Dirda: I think you'd be in the minority here. He's certainly not the kind of stylist that O'Brian was--but then he's trying to write more action-filled stories. I will add that I'm willing to put up with a good deal of ordinary prose in return for a fast-moving or complicated plot. I admire Agatha Christie immensely for her sheer ingenuity, the way she can trick the reader time after time.
Bethesda, Md.: Good afternoon, Charvet-clad lit lover. I began reading "A Ship Made of Paper," which you and Elizabeth recommended last week. It is fascinating. I always wonder how authors maintain authenticity and integrity when they write from the perspectives of characters with different ethnic and racial backgrounds from their own. Scott Spencer does a good job of avoiding some of the common stereotypes. I really disliked Zadie Smith's "On Beauty" because her black protagonist seemed inauthentic. Your thoughts?
Michael Dirda: I liked On Beauty a lot. So this must be the week I disagree with my esteemed posters. Smith is black, so I can't see that she's likely to be inauthentic in terms of race, though she might well get being American wrong. I found it a moving portrait of family love and family crisis. When the three children--all different in character--collectively give their father the finger, in a spirit of affection, it's just wonderful.
Washington: Hi Michael. In last week's chat you mentioned that you try to stay up-to-date on required English texts when you travel to various universities (and their campus bookstores). Could you tell me which books most commonly appear on those lists? The top five, perhaps, of what's "trendy" these days? After a long time away I'm going back to school to study literature and I'd like to take advantage of this summer to do some preparatory reading. Thank you very much.
Michael Dirda: Well, it does depend on the kind of course you're taking. But I'm sure the most widely taught writer in literature classes today is Toni Morrison. She fits into multiple categories: Modern fiction, feminist fiction, African-American fiction, Great Works by Authors who Were Born in Lorain, Ohio (along with Bruce Weigl's poetry collection Sweet Lorain and M. Dirda's An Open Book, among others.)
Lenexa, Kan.: I do remember Ron Charles' review of "The Blue Star" in BW -- one of the special ones that convinced me I needed to get to Earley. I noticed a quote of his "Christian Science" review of "Jim the Boy" was part of the paperback release. I think he's a terrific reviewer -- look forward to him every week in BW.
P.S. Back in the days of Royal Crown soda, we used to say "RC for me."
Michael Dirda: In my day, an RC was a Roman Catholic, though Book World's RC used to work for the Christian Science Monitor.
Are you saying that Royal Crown Cola no longer exists? Next you'll be telling me there's no more Nehi.
Windsor, Colorado: Dear Michael:
Re: historical fiction authors
In the early 1960's I read quite a few Kenneth Roberts novels and have a warm fuzzy memory of them. Fuzzy has dual meanings here. He wrote Northwest Passage, Lydia Bailey, Rabble in Arms and Arundel to name a few. How is he viewed if at all?
Michael Dirda: Oh, I should have mentioned Kenneth Roberts. You know, he was once one of this country's most famous novelists, but I suspect he has fallen into that category of author known only to older guys and dolls. Roberts, John P. Marquand, John O'Hara, Clyde Brion Davis, Hamilton Basso, Louis Bromfield, Pearl Buck, Joseph Hergesheimer, Booth Tarkington, and so many others. I've read some of their books and they were very good, in differing ways of course. But literary history doesn't seem to have room for more than a certain number of writers, and so they have fallen into desuetude (if that's the word I want and it probably isn't quite).
S.F., Calif.: Have read a good bit of Henry James but cannot, for the life of me, get into The Ambassadors. Have tried and abandoned it a few times. The sentences seem particularly convoluted, even for James, and I have to read each one multiple times before understanding. And sometimes I still don't get what he's saying. I'm feeling like an idiot. Advice?
Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Have you read The Golden Bowl or The Wings of the Dove? I suspect not--they make The Ambassadors look like Winnie the Pooh. Well, not quite. Late James is an acquired taste, and it's not for everyone. I myself find it fascinating rather than engaging. I suggest reading James's letters and criticism--these have some of the character of the late style but are usually more focused.
So, you're not an idiot.
New Lenox, Ill.: Re: The upcoming issue of American Scholar and the New York Review of Books - can you tell us what it is you wrote about in each of them?
Is there somewhere where I can read your collected Readings essays (other than what you have in your book of that title)?
Michael Dirda: Actually, I'd rather not say. In fact, I don't like to talk about things until they're actually in print--and even then I don't like to talk about them.
As for Readings essays: They exist in the Post database and you may be able to access them somehow, probably for a few. I'm not sure if they would all be slugged "Readings," though. I will say that I left out at least as many as are included in the book, usually because the pieces seemed more timely than timeless.
Albuquerque, N.M.: I have a book recommendation for all the participants of this discussion: Le Ton Beau de Marot, by Douglas Hofstadter. Are you aware of it? Despite its title, the book is not in French. Many will immediately recognize Hofstadter as the author of Godel, Escher, Bach and other titles on mathematics, consciousness and computation. Marot is different. It's a thought provoking, playful, stunningly erudite meditation on language, poetry, translation and the written word. It would take too long to mention all the topics it covers. Hofstadter's chapters on learning languages, playing the piano, his love for Pushkin (he actually tried his hand at a verse translation of Eugene Onegin later on), his delight in poetry and the creative juices that flow when one submits to the discipline of meter and rhyme are all just the tip of the iceberg.
When I discovered this discussion board and Michael's books a couple of months ago, it struck me how often the topics that come up here and in Michael's books brought to mind something from this Hofstadter volume.
Michael Dirda: All that you say about the book, I must second. Or actually I must third, since I reviewed Le Ton Beau de Marot, which would be the second, or something. Hofstadter and I later engaged in some correspondence over translation and the Oulipo(partly conducted in lipograms--we'd write each other without using some vowel: It was pure competitive one-upmanship). I later met the man in Bloomington where I'd gone to give a talk, and liked him: an interesting combination of diffidence, smarts, vanity, and kindness. I didn't know till then that his father had won a Nobel Prize.
Washington, D.C.: What are your favorite independent presses?
Michael Dirda: I'm not sure what an independent press is any more. Is Norton an independent? Is New Directions? Sort of. But I presume you mean small publishers, ie not big trade houses or university presses. I like Copper Canyon, Sarabande, Graywolf, Ash-Tree, Tartarus, Crippen and Landru. The first four specialize in poetry, the next two in fantasy, the last in mystery short stories.
washingtonpost.com: You can actually read Le Ton Beau de Marot online via Amazon.com. - Elizabeth
Michael Dirda: Really? I'm surprised. It's an enormously long book and not all that old. Still . . . .
On "On Beauty": I remember your great review of the book. I read it recently and really loved the first half. But then it just became tedious for me. I thought she had to work way too hard to try to make the Howards End parallel fit. Did you find that at all?
I do find it strange that a reader would think her black characters weren't authentic.
Michael Dirda: Thanks. I don't disagree with you, but I'm such a strong believer in Randall Jarrell's dictum about novels that it didn't bother me that much. Jarrell once said "A novel is a narrative of a certain length with something wrong with it."
Greg, Charlotte: Which should I read first - Kennedy's "Ironweed" or O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds?" Like you, I can't read two novels at the same time.
Michael Dirda: Two very different styles and books. Kennedy would be easier and more gripping; O'Brien is funnier and more innovative. So you need to figure you what you want.
Silver Spring, Md.: More excellent letters: Virginia Woolf (either the five volume set or any of the selected versions), Kingsley Amis, and the recently published set of letters exchanged by the Mitford sisters. Lest you think I only favor Brits, add Flannery O'Connor to the list.
I look forward to reading the set of letters exchanged by Margaret Drabble, A S Byatt, and their sister the art historian whose name I can't remember. No word yet that it will be published, but surely it will be.
Michael Dirda: I don't imagine that Antonia and Margaret had much to say to each other, and that there aren't likely to be many letters between the two of them. I do know they adore their sister, who's name I think is Helen Dunmore (but I could be wrong on this). She wrote a book on Caravaggio.
Your other choices are ones I agree with entirely, especially Flannery O'Connor. A wonderful dry sense of humor.
E-Book Reader: Hello Michael - I rarely am online during your discussion, but thought I would submit this. My husband recently purchased the Amazon Kindle for me. I was a little doubtful, but I am away on a trip and am enjoying it immensely. Instead of padding the bottom of my suitcase with a selection of books to read, I have on it more than I could read in several months, including all of Jane Austen and something called Classic Mystery Collection which includes Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton, M.R. Rinehart and many more, all for about $5. Sorry to sound like an ad, but it's a great invention for traveling readers, size and weight of a paperback.
Michael Dirda: Ah, well: We all know the future belongs to screens. Still, I am of the school that favors traveling with beat-up paperbacks that one can abandon en route: Lolita left on the unmade bed of a western motel, that sort of thing.
Silver Spring, Md.: What Jarrell actually said: a piece of narrative fiction of a certain length that has something wrong with it.
Much more rhythmic and mellifluous than your version. He was a poet, after all.
Michael Dirda: That was mean, he said scuffing his foot against the floor and holding back a tear.
I hold with the old view that a gentleman always quotes from memory--and getting things slightly wrong is a sign that one isn't some kind of owlish antiquarian who goes in for checking every allusion or phrase.
Bran Castle: Are you being pursued by vampires?
Michael Dirda: Could well be. It would explain a lot of things.
Silver Spring, Md.: Another good imprint is New York Review of Books. Lots of interesting stuff, otherwise hard to find, mostly reprints. I don't know whether they are technically independent or not.
Michael Dirda: Oh, NYRB paperbacks are the best, thanks to the perspicacious connoisseurship of Edwin Frank. Also, I like Archipelago Books and many others. I don't really pay as much attention to publishers as I might. But NYRB does have a distinctive and handsome look.
books left in motels....: or found: in Paris, a sordid paperback on the Manson Family murders.....
Michael Dirda: That's ghoulish.
HELEN LANGDON, not helen dunmore: Helen Dunmore is an English author unrelated to the Byatt/Drabble sisters. Their sister is an art historian named Helen Langdon.
Let's not spread misinformation, ok?
Michael Dirda: Hey, I said I wasn't sure. I knew it was Helen something or other. What do you think I do here, tab over to Google or run around checking reference books? Gimme a break, okay. This is a chat; so I chat. When I write reviews I do try to check things out--and still make mistakes, I might add. But, jeez, don't give me this holier than thou business.
Pardon the emotion.
Silver Spring, Md. - quoting accurately: Why do you assume I didn't quote from memory, too? I'm just cursed with a more magpie-ish memory than thou.
Michael Dirda: Bet you're not. I challenge anyone in the United States to a Jeopardy style quiz on literary trivia, and to include quotes. I also write fast, which accounts for lots of trivial mistakes.
Sigh. I'm now alienating everyone by this display of sophomoric peevishness. Sorry. But I'm only human, or as Friedrich Nieztzsche (note misspelling which I'm not going back to correct) would say, Human, all too Human.
But NYRB does have a distinctive and handsome look. : I guess now would be the time to confess that I buy these because the spines look so fantastic on my shelves. (Yes, I do read them....occasionally.)
Michael Dirda: Good show. (Note double meaning).
Alexandria, Virginia: How can you mention great popular historical novelists and not mention the recently departed George MacDonald Fraser, creator of the glorious Flashman series! How soon they forget...
Michael Dirda: Hey, I usually include Fraser in my answer to that question, but this time I didn't--no big deal. I did review the last Flashman. You probably didn't know that Lytton Strachey was going to write about Flashy in Eminent Victorians as his military example of Victorianism but because the Flashman papers were embargoed at the time he had to settle for Chinese Gordon instead. They're I go again--spreading misinformation. N.B. The above is not true--or is it? As Homer Simpson would say.
Moab, Utah: I'm back in the States for a year so no Parisian apartment for you.
For those going to Western Europe, I would recommend that they bring the books that they want to read, then after doing so, find a used English bookstore (just ask any new English shop where they are) and turn them in for euro-cash -- as you can get a lot more money for them there than you can in the States. English books (even used ones) are very expensive there.
-Hmmm. I must write a poem that has a euro-cash/euro-trash rhyme in it.
Michael Dirda: Is there really a Moab, Utah? Please tell me there is.
Hmmm. So if I go to live in France and have my books gradually shipped over, I can actually make enough to live on by selling them to Shakespeare and Company or whatever?
Bethesda, Md.: Oh and also the name of the On Beauty protagonist -- Kiki -- was highly inauthentic for her age and social status. As a black woman myself, I can't help but find these incongruities grating. My black friends and relatives agreed.
Michael Dirda: Well, I can't argue black experience with you. But Zadie doesn't sound all that different from Kiki. Of course, one does think of Kiki de Montparnasse, which I believe has been adopted as the name of a lingerie store. I do love the names of lingerie stores and lines: Agent Provocateur, Coup de Foudre, etc.
Lenexa, Kan.: I think I learned on this show once that Helen Vendler was supposedly the sister. Glad to get that cleared up. (We're just having fun -- you're remarkably accurate off the top of your head. Most of us could no more do that, then we could hit .300 for the Royals).
Michael Dirda: Oh, just trying to smooth the waters, eh Lenexa? Well, I'm still roiled up--le mot juste, here.
Well, I'm not really. I wish I didn't make any mistakes ever. I once wrote an entire Readings column on mistakes I'd made IN PRINT, such as getting the wrong Wagner opera for the Wedding March. Tannhauser, Lohengrin--who can keep those knights apart anyway?
Chicago, Ill.: I'm fond of Prickly Paradigm Press, which prints little pamphlet-books about various academic subjects (anthropology, art, law) but in very readable language.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks.
Silver Spring:...and remembering quotations accurately must be some kind of copyeditor-ish curse, eh what?
Michael Dirda: Don't know. I have a good memory, but it's not eidetic.
Pittsburgh: By sheer coincidence, "Nietzschean" was one of the words on the recent nationally-televised spelling bee.
Michael Dirda: Coincidence--I don't think so. Cue the Twilight Zone music.
quotes from memory...: reminds me of the exasperated contemporary of Macaulay's remark that "Macaulay's 'every schoolboy knows' means 'here is an impossibly obscure piece of erudition that I have just looked up in the encyclopedia.'" Or words to that effect. I wish I could remember who said it. Possibly the same contemporary who said he wished he were as cocksure of anything as Macaulay was of everything.
Michael Dirda: I've always loved that phrase of Macaulay's and have tried to use it occasionally. But my copy editors invariably make me take it out as unneeded. I've also liked the story about Macaulay's first spoken words. He'd never uttered anything until he was quite well along in childhood, when a visitor spilled some hot tea on him. She flustered and hovered, and he said--something like, "The pain has quite abated now, Madam."
New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Lingerie - Lise Charmel, French.
Michael Dirda: Is that Charmel or Charnel? Or possibly Chanel? Or even Carmel?
washingtonpost.com: Oh, you're right - it's not the whole book ("Le Ton Beau..."). It looked like it was, but it is not. Just selections. Sorry! But maybe good to help decide if you want to invest in the whole thing. - Elizabeth
Michael Dirda: Thanks, Elizabeth.
New York City: Do you keep all the books you read?
Michael Dirda: Nope. In fact, I keep relatively few. Mainly those I figure I might reread or might actively need for something or other. Most I give away. I just don't have room. In fact, when people see all my books and ask if I've read them all, I'm usually tempted to answer, "No, I haven't read any of them." That is, I tend to keep at hand the books I want to read and haven't quite gotten to yet.
12th and Penn: Just to put in a good word for Cornwell: the Sharpe books helped me make it through my first year of law school, probably because Sharpe is the kind of man -- settling disputes the old-fashioned way -- that all guys wish we could be.
However, his trilogy on King Arthur has more literary complexity, both from a narrative perspective, and in the themes it confronts. For the previous poster, those would be worth a try.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks.
McLean, Va.: What do you think the next epistemic shift in literature will reveal?
Michael Dirda: Episteme shift? You've been in graduate school too long. Wasn't paradigm shift good enough for you?
My answer though is: I don't know.
Palookaville: The New York Review of Books reissue series continues to cost me money buying books I've never heard of but which invariably turn out to be worth it. Recently, I picked up Andrey Platonov's "Soul," a collection of short works, and found that the first story I read, "The Return," was a small masterpiece. Today, at the great Bridge Street Books, I found "Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself," an antebellum novel by Robert Montgomery Bird, who evidently was quite popular in his day but is unknown to me. I read a few pages standing in the store and was hooked. Previous buys from the NYRB imprint include "The Go-Between," "The Dud Avocado," "Beware of Pity," "The Golovlyov Family," "Monsieur Proust," and several others. They've also reissued a number of things that I've read in other editions and know to be good, like "The Big Clock," "Rogue Male," "My Dog Tulip," "Memoirs of Hecate County," etc.
Can you use your influence in the publishing world to make them stop releasing new (actually, new old) titles so that I have a fighting chance of putting some money aside for my old age? Thanks!
Michael Dirda: Sorry. I've actually suggested a dozen or more titles to Edwin Frank and he's reissued perhaps a five or six of them. You're just going to have to get a second job.
Lansdale, Pa.: Hi Michael,
I enjoyed your Chronicle Review article on James Bond. I find the cinematic Bond more of a male wish fulfillment than the literary incarnation. The difference may be in the way I experience the two mediums. I tend to let movies wash over me - I easily accept their improbabilities and failings and get swept up in the fantasy, especially when the music is convincing (as it almost always is with Bond). The rubber masked monster embodies my nightmares regardless of exposed zippers and the most physically impossible Bond escapes convince me of his resourcefulness; I never notice the cut that replaces Roger Moore with a stuntman nor the camera angle that hides the protective harness. In the books, however, I read between the lines and supply the physical sensations that Fleming neglects. The frequent drinking and 70 cigarettes a day in which Bond indulges make me think that his breath would remind me of one of my somewhat sad bachelor uncles.
One of the features of the books that impressed me as having no parallel in the movies was the detailed descriptions of the meals Bond encounters: the salmon at Blades in Moonraker, the crab feast in Goldfinger, and even the fried chicken in a plastic basket in Diamonds are Forever. This last one is unusual in that Fleming describes it as being not very appetizing; usually the meals are worthy of the refined taste of their consumer, though as I recall, that crab feast, while delicious, leaves Bond feeling "like a pig". I thought that the gustatory descriptions were one of the wish fulfillment aspects of Bond for a ration-plagued Britain, at least in the earlier books. Since you have just re-read Live and Let Die, I am curious as to your opinion of the meal Bond shares with Felix and the CIA men on his arrival in America. The meal of burgers, French fries, and ice cream struck me as something one would encounter at Friendly's, but I was not sure how to interpret the tone Fleming used here. Do you think Fleming was poking fun at the dietary simplicity of American tastes in this scene or were such meals still something exotic and desirable for Britons in the mid 50s?
washingtonpost.com: James Bond as Archetype (and Incredibly Cool Dude) (The Chronicle Review, June 20)
Michael Dirda: You know, I wondered about that myself. He does talk about something like "flat hamburgers"--whatever that means. Still, half the meal is McDonalds and half fairly epicurean. My guess is that he was telling it straight--you have to remember how much the rest of the world once craved American fast food, along with Levis and American rock.
24th and M, D.C.: Michael,
Have you had any time to consider Peter Matthiessen's Shadow Country? He consolidated his Watson Trilogy into one piece. Evidently it's supposed to be closer to Matthiessen's original vision and a better read - at least according to the Miami Herald.
In the same light, are there any trilogies that you think would benefit from the same treatment?
Michael Dirda: I wrote a long essay about Shadow Country for the New York Review of Books. I thought it was a magnificent book, a real masterpiece. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Freising, Germany: Since Wimbledon is about to start again this year, and the first Lawn Tennis Championship at the tennis club was played in 1877, I was wondering if there are any classic novels or even classic mysteries that are set around the tournament or in the Wimbledon neighborhood?
Michael Dirda: Okay, I must stop, though there are lots more posts. I'm sorry that I can't get to them all. We'll do this again next week, Okay?
As for Wimbledon: Can't say I know of any mysteries set there, though there is a John Dickson Carr impossible crime on a tennis court (can't remember the title just now--I'm going to have to withdraw my Jeopardy challenge if things continue this way). John McPhee wrote a long essay on Wimbledon, published with photos as a book. And there's his Levels of the Game. In Devil May Care James Bond plays an intense--and crooked--game of tennis against the novel's archvillain.
Till next Wednesday at 2--keep reading!
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