Dirda on Books
Wednesday, July 9, 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) In 2006 he brought out "Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life" (Henry Holt), and in 2007 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, July 9.
A transcript follows.
Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! It's a gloomy day here in Washington, for multiple reasons, some personal, some meterological, some public. Most of all, it's a sad time for literature since July 4, when my friend the multi-talented Thomas M. Disch shot and killed himself. Those of you who follow the Post can find an excellent obit/appreciation by Matt Schudel in today's paper or online. Tom was arguably the most versatile and gifted writer of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. He will be missed. But his books are still out there, and deserve to be read, studied, collected and honored.
Okay. Enough of this gloom. Let me mention a happier item: My friends Verlyn Flieger and Douglas Anderson have just published--in Britain--a superb and magnificent annotated edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's On Fairy-Stories. This essay is a central text of modern fantasy, and no one knows more about fantasy and Tolkien than the co-authors of this expanded edition. Look for it.
And now let's look for today's questions.
Houston, Texas: I'm leaving for a nearly three week vacation in Papua New Guinea. I will be unable to buy books there: everything I need to read I'll have to bring with me. Any suggestions? Right now, I'm leaning towards bringing a selection of smallish books that I can toss aside as I finish. I'm thinking maybe some Wodehouse, perhaps The Quest for Corvo, His Monkey Wife... any thoughts?
Michael Dirda: Paperbacks would be good, or the old Viking Portables--like little versions of the Library of America but usually available for a couple of bucks in used bookshops. The books you suggest will certainly keep you amused. But I'd think you'd want to bring a volume of Somerset Maugham short stories or Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim or Nordhoff and Hall's Bounty trilogy.
New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Request for book cataloguing programs - I use BookCAT. It is a book collector database program and has a comprehensive set of fields that allows you to catalog a wide range of information such as the title, author, translation, reviews, etc., it also has an option wherein you can download book data from the Internet using the ISBN number, including a picture of the front of the book.
Michael Dirda: Well, this does sound useful. Among my many unrealized dreams is actually cataloguing my books (it comes second to actually having shelves to put them all on). My friend John Clute used to enter the basic bibliographical information into his computer of every book he bought, usually on the day he bought it. But he has the mind of a great critic, supported by the reference urge of a great bibliographer.
Lenexa, Kan.: I recently finished Curtis (female) Sittenfeld's moving debut novel "Prep" -- a kind of "Charlotte Simmons" for younger teens. Going away to school often changes the way students relate to their parents. Turgenev's young university student -- his head fairly exploding with new, exciting ideas -- became bored with his parents after the first day of his visit home. In a similar vein, there's a sad (and very funny) episode in "Prep" when the girl's Midwest folks come to the New England prep school for parents' weekend.
I've just begun T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain" -- read by the author. I've mostly read his short fiction previously (and just enjoyed his surreal "Thirteen Hundred Rats" in the last "New Yorker"). How much have you done with the two authors? Do you know Boyle personally? Thanks as always.
Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I wish Curtis Sittenfeld every success, but I don't think "Prep" is my kind of book. Whatever that means. Having read Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace, I've pretty much done all I care to with the prep school novel.
Boy, that sounds grumpy.
As for Boyle: I admired his novel about Kinsey, despite some cavils, and I've read with pleasure a few stories. He's obviously a great talent. We've never met. Many of my friends are crazy about his work. But he seems to be a writer who is just below the top ten list--always there, always imaginative, never quite winning the big enchiladas.
Albuquerque, N.M.: I recently stumbled across a short story by Woody Allen called "The Whore of Mensa" and thought it was a scream. In a hard-boiled idiom, the story is about a detective uncovering a prostitution ring in which lonely men pay pretty young women to come to seedy hotel rooms and have intellectual discussions with them.
Do you recommend other fiction by Woody Allen? Anything in similar vein to this?
washingtonpost.com: The Whore of Mensa by Woody Allen
Michael Dirda: Allen's short stories and essays are quite wonderful, and you can find his first three collections bound together in one of those instant remainder books at the big box bookstores. Alternately, you can just seek out copies of Without Feathers and the others. He recently came out with a fourth collection, after a long hiatus, and while good, it didn't seem to have the old snap. The Whore of Mensa is one of his best stories, along with the one where his detective is hired to investigate the death of God, and the one about the contemporary harried guy who goes back in time and--shades of Jasper Fforde--has an affair with Emma Bovary.
Houston, Texas: Great idea. Thanks.
Michael Dirda: You're welcome.
WpgManCDA: Dear Mr. Dirda:
I read recently that Mavis Gallant's "writing has been compared by critic Robert Fulford to the work of Henry James and George Eliot". I forwarded this information to my sister, along with the suggestion that, as good Canadians, we should perhaps give Ms. Gallant a try, even if she does live in Paris instead of Canada. Her response was as follows:
"Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to ask Dirda if she's more like Henry James or more like George Eliot. The answer will make a difference to my level of enthusiasm. Maybe he could recommend a title..."
Could you provide some guidance please?
Michael Dirda: Hmmmm. I'd say she was more like early to mid Henry James, and certainly not late James. She has some wonderful stories about Paris, some featuring a character named Speck (if I recall correctly). I once reviewed her Paris Notebooks--covering the events of May, 1968, along with some first-rate reviews, essays and appreciations. She also included The Case of Gabrielle Russier, her introduction to Russier's letters from prison. GR was a mid thirties school teacher who had an affair with her 17 year old male student. She was sent to prison, eventually released, forbidden to see the boy again, and committed suicide. Her love letters became the No. 1 best seller in France when Love Story was at the top of our list (the two cultures). I taught English in the school where Russier had been a teacher two years previous; one of my students was the brother of the boy involved; the movie--Mourir d'aimer--came out that year in Marseille.
You should give Gallant a try.
San Salvador, El Salvador: Hello, Dr. Dirda. The Latin American literary boom has been long gone. Magical realism, as a literary movement, proved to be a brilliant marketing move on the part of Spanish publishing houses based on the works of a handful of great Latin American writers. Over the last 15 years or so, a generation of Hispanic American writers has emerged whose works could be labeled (neutrally) "Made in USA". Isabel Allende, a very good best-seller writer, is at best a second-rate writer by Latin American standards, while she has enjoyed great success in the U.S., a success then exported to Latin America! Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros also come to mind in more nuanced terms. It seems that the works of these authors attest to an American experience and our diasporas. Consequently,the need for Spanish-English translations of Latin American literature has been curtailed since audiences tend to consider Allende and Co. the referents of current Latin American literature, which for some is already dated or too regional. I realize that Latin American literature is not in the radar screen anymore (I myself long ago moved to explore other continents). As a loyal member of your Wednesday afternoon constituency, I thank you in advance for your comments on these assertions.
Michael Dirda: Your remarks seem pretty much spot on. I've occasionally reviewed youngish Latin-American writers, and often with admiration and pleasure, but none has seemed to have been able to make a mark on the American reading public. We do read Spanish language writers, but they tend to be authors of plot-driven thrillers, though very fine novels in their way: I'm thinking of Arturo Perez-Reverte and Carlos Zafon, in particular.
"Prep school novel": Would your colleague Jonathan Yardley's column on Louis Auchincloss's book perhaps tempt you to read it?
washingtonpost.com: Valuable Lessons From 'The Rector of Justin' (Washington Post, July 9)
Michael Dirda: Jon is always good on anything he writes about, and I've often thought of reading this particular Auchincloss novel. I actually have a number of friends who teach or administer prep schools. But I'm a public school kid, from a very rough public school at that, and I carry residual baggage about preppies. Spoiled twerps with too much money basically sums it up.
Woody Allen: The story you refer to is "The Kugelmass Episode." I first encountered it in a high school English text book. A wonderful gem.
Michael Dirda: Yes--that's the Bovary one.
Silver Spring, Md.: For the traveler to Papua New Guinea - this is the best argument for buying a Kindle or other electronic book device and stuffing it with public-domain books. Lots of classics are available in text format and can be uploaded free to the Kindle.
The Kindle isn't as bad as you might imagine, and you can always sell it to someone if you don't like it or need it after the trip.
Michael Dirda: I like that last sentence--the voice of the experienced traveler. I picture you on some mosquito coast, desperate for a ticket to Shang-Hai and going around the watefront bars saying quietly, "Hey, want to buy a Kindle? Lots of Edith Wharton already on it. How about a hundred bucks? I gotta get out this godforsaken hole."
Indianapolis, Ind.: Regarding Woody Allen -- one of the funniest things I've ever read was his short story detailing what happens when Count Dracula ventures out during a full eclipse of the sun. My faulty memory can't come up with the title.
washingtonpost.com: I think "Count Dracula" is in "Getting Even."
Michael Dirda: Many thanks. As posters can tell, the amazing Elizabeth is back on the scene.
Woody Allen's short pieces: I don't know which is my favorite of "Without Feathers": The Whore of Mensa or the spoof of The Seventh Seal where Death comes to Manhattan and his victim challenges him to a gin rummy game.
Michael Dirda: Yes, that's the one done in the form of a play. And then there's the one about the laundry list of, I think, of Kafka or some arcane modern philosopher.
Overcast, D.C.: Sorry to hear about the loss. Its always difficult to keep the candle lit when the source of the flame is gone. But so long as the lit candle is preserved the light will shine however solitary, however overcast, however dark.
I am finding myself exploring some that I had heretofore not tried. Namely, Two Years Before the Mast and some short stories of Tolstoy along with a tome he wrote titled, "What is Art?" Have you any experience of them? The Dana and the short stories were recommended as must reads. So far, I'm enjoying the few pages I've read and thinking about the authors whose works have not yet captured my attention but perhaps will.
Michael Dirda: I've read a bunch of Tolstoy, including much of What is Art. This last is really a tract, and argues for a kind of didactic, Christian art (if I remember correctly), and goes so far as to denigrate Shakespeare. (Tolstoy wasn't the only one; I remember that the modern critic Marvin Mudrick also hated Shakespeare because he regarded sex as dirty and yukky.)
Never read Dana.
Still, if you're reading Tolstoy you should read things like Master and Man or The Death of Ivan Illich, if you want something short.
Houston, Texas: Thanks for the Kindle idea, a friend of mine has one and offered to loan it to me.
Although your review "not as bad as you might think," isn't exactly a rave...
Michael Dirda: Thanks for more Kindle comment.
Woody Allen in HS textbook?: That's wonderful! Maybe we'll see Steve Martin's fiction in a Norton Anthology one day.
Michael Dirda: It's probably already happened. Of course, they decided to leave out Mark Twain to fit him in.
Latin American Writers: The recent "discovery" of Bolano in the U.S. seems like one possible foot in the door for a resurgence.
washingtonpost.com: Dirda's review of Bolano's Nazi Literature in the Americas (Washington Post Book World, March 2)
Michael Dirda: Yes, Bolano does seem to have caught reader interest.
Baltimore Md.: Re Woody Allen's prose: He took the title of his collection Without Feathers from Emily Dickinson's line, "Hope is the thing with feathers." Allen has a character who is writing a diary put down, "Emily Dickinson says 'Hope is the thing with feathers.' She is wrong. The thing with feathers is my nephew. I must get him to a specialist in Zurich."
In his first collection, Getting Even, Allen also has a wonderful piece called Death: A Play in which a feckless Grim Reaper comes for a prosperous dress manufacturer. Death tells him to be sure to bring his wallet. When the man asks why, Death says, "There's gas. There's tolls." Then, in a nice play on Bergman, the man challenges Death to gin rummy and beats him soundly.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks.
Concord, N.H.: I picked up "Journey to the End of the Night" a while ago, drawn in by the promise of apocalyptic prose. I was prepared to be shocked or discomfited but instead found some of the most darkly beautiful writing. It was not shocking or gory; Celine's writing is just lovely. Certainly it is dark, but the writing is anything but brutish.
It must really be something in the original French, which I don't read quite well enough to fully appreciate anything other than signs pointing me to the bathroom.
Michael Dirda: I concur, as you'll see if you look up my essay on Celine in Classics for Pleasure. I do concentrate on what I regard as his slightly better novel Death on the Installment Plan. It's a pity that he grew horribly anti-Semitic.
Lansdale, Pa.: Hi Michael, I too was very sorry to hear about Tom Disch. His series of books The Businessman, The MD, and The Priest have been on my to-read pile for too long. This unfortunate event will finally inspire me to read them. Readers are always asking you for vacation recommendations. How about books for a staycation (as the coinage has it)? I think there is a book written in the form of a travel narrative around the bedroom of the writer (you may have mentioned it in one of these chats). Are there any other books of this nature you could recommend? Perhaps stories or novels set in a single, non-glamorous location, such as the recent story collection Knockemstiff, which is set entirely in a county in rural southern Ohio, which I greatly enjoyed.
Michael Dirda: You're thinking of Xavier de Maistre's Journey Around My Room--I also write about this in Classics for Pleasure.
If you want a book in very circumscribed location, but beautifully composed and very funny, try The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, which takes place during a lunch hour, or Room Temperature (which takes place entirely while a father gives his baby a bottle).
Chicago, Ill.: Re personal book databases: the mind of a great critic is not necessary. You just have to be really anal. I am! Since the age of 7 (on lined paper) I've been recording what books I read and the date finished. Then when I got my first computer I created a large spreadsheet that includes all the basic information plus whether I own the book or just read it, whether it was a gift, new or used, and whether I've reviewed it on some website. Being a spreadsheet, it is sortable in any number of ways. I track with beautiful color charts how many books I purchase and read per year. And since I constantly forget whether I own a book or have just been mulling over buying it, I can take the list into stores to be sure.
Michael Dirda: It sounds lovely. But my mind and my bookshelves are the sort of thing a deranged magpie might come up with.
Princeton, N.J.: I don't usually chat after 1, but I thought I'd throw my 2 cents in. I like books with complicated structures like Ellis' "In the Company of Liars" in which the events of each chapter take place before the events in the preceding one. The master of this is Iain M. Banks. In one of my favorite novels, "Complicity," second person chapters ("You hear the car after an hour and a half") about grisly political murders alternate with first person chapters about a drunken reporter who worries that while drunk, he may be the murderer of the other chapters. Banks' most convoluted novel is "Use of Weapons" in which the story is folded in the middle and then interleaved. Barth did a book just devoted to ideas like this ("Chimera"?). Do you know any other good examples?
Michael Dirda: Check out the Oulipo school in France: Georges Perec, in particular, and Harry Mathews. Also Daniel Spoerri's Anecdotal Togpography of Chance. New Directions recently reissued B.S. Johnson's novel which consists of a deck of cards--you can read the "book" in any order you shuffle. There are lots of experiments out there.
Any laptop will do: When we went to St. Lucia for a week, we knew we couldn't carry that many books with us, so we loaded our laptop and PDAs with public-domain books. You don't need to buy a special device unless the Kindle has a particular advantage in viewing.
Michael Dirda: Good idea.
Pittsburgh: Googling just now on "The Quest for Corvo" has led me first to the author Alphonse James Albert Symons, then to his subject, a British convert to Catholicism named Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary [sic] Rolfe (1860-1913), who styled himself as the Baron Corvo. Why Corvo? I don't perceive any connection to the island of Corvo in the Azores, and can't seem to find any other reason for the name.
Michael Dirda: He was obsessed with priests, and maybe Corvo--which I presume means blackbird or raven--reminded him of priests. I've read Corvo's biography, but don't recall the origin of the name. His best book is Hadrian the Seventh. Symons's brother was the noted crime novelist and critic, Julian Symons, who wrote a terrific short biography of AJA.
Columbia, Md.: So I'm finally reading the much recommended Eminent Victorians and it really is that good. The viciously witty prose reminds me of Gibbon. Is that a weird comparison? Is the rest of Lytton Strachey's work this good?
Michael Dirda: No, Gibbon is a good comparison. EV is probably his best single book, but there are lots of wonderful essays in The Shorter Strachey, which draws on his three or four collections of reviews and essays (e.g. Books and Characters). Queen Victoria is a little heavy, though it ends with an absolutely brilliant sentence, as the dying queen's mind goes back through here past and ends with her first vision of the world: "the trees and the grass at Kensington."
Nice Preppie here..: It's never good to harbor stereotypes, Mr. Dirda...
washingtonpost.com: I went to private school too. It's OK. -- Elizabeth
Michael Dirda: Oh, come on. What would we do without stereotypes? Next you'll be telling me that blondes aren't dumb. (I'm teasing--so don't attack.) I should add that my two closest friends in college went to Andover.
Boston, Mass.: Hi Michael. I read "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton (sp?) Mistry and absolutely loved it. I then read his book, "Family Matters" and loved that one too. He has a wonderful way of making me laugh and breaking my heart at the same time. I also enjoy the way he weaves a historical context into his novels. Not only am I enjoying the stories, but I'm learning about Bombay and the politics of India. I'm sadly realizing that soon I will be out of Mistry books and am hoping you can suggest a similar author who I may enjoy. Thanks.
washingtonpost.com: Books by Indian authors I have enjoyed: "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie. "The Romantics" by Pankaj Mishra. The extraordinarily long "A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth. - Elizabeth
Michael Dirda: No need--my estimable preppy colleague has done my work for me. I might add Arundhati Roy, R.K. Narayan and Shashi Tharoor to the list.
More short Tolstoy: If you want something short by Tolstoy that's less didactic, try his Sevastopol Stories. There are also several chapters from either War and Peace and Anna K that could be read as short stories -- the hunting scene in W and P, for instance, is fun and evocative.
Michael Dirda: Thanks.
Ashcroft, B.C. (BR): Like Winnipeg, I think of myself as a "good Canadian"; but when it comes to reading I prefer to think of myself as a "good reader" (or, more grandly, a citizen of the world). I occasionally feel a twinge of guilt that I haven't read more Atwood or Davies, for example, or that you'd have to pay me good money to make me read Laurence's "The Stone Angel" again. The truth is that there are simply so many wonderful books available, from all over the globe, that I prefer to spend my time reading what I want to, and what interests me, rather than what I "should" read based on my nationality.
On another note, anyone interested in true crime and/or Victorian murder mysteries and/or Victorian detective/sensation fiction should read Kate Summerscale's "The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher", about the infamous Constance Kent murder case of 1860 and the detective who investigated it, and whose career was ultimately destroyed because of it (the fact that he was subsequently proved right came too late to be of much help). Whicher was the inspiration for both Dickens's Inspector Bucket and Collins's Sergeant Cuff, and anyone who has read "The Moonstone" and "Edwin Drood" in particular will recognise how much both authors drew on the Kent case when writing their books.
Michael Dirda: A good point. Many thanks.
Chicago, Ill.: I grabbed a book as I was running through the library yesterday, one of those "70 authors pick the book that changed their lives" and describe it in a blurb type things. The one that really made me snort was Joe Lieberman. (Unrelatedly, I had a dream over the weekend that I was reading something by John McCain but I couldn't figure out why.) Joe Lieberman's book was -- are you ready? -- the Bible.
Michael Dirda: Safe choice.
Pittsburgh: A professor I know once mentioned having read Richard Henry Dana's "Seven Years Before the Mast" as an adolescent. When I asked him if it wasn't "Two Years Before the Mast," he said the book seemed so interminable that it felt like seven years!
Michael Dirda: Cute.
Washington, D.C.: This borders on an agony-aunt question, but here goes: A casual friend of mine recently published her first book, with a contract for several more already signed. This is fantastic news! The unfortunate aspect is that I've now bought and read the book, and it just does not ring my chimes. Is there anything you would suggest saying should the topic come up? She's extremely intelligent, has done a lot of fascinating research about which we can talk for ages, and it's a genre with which we're both very familiar, so it really is just the writing that's putting me off. I should have a clever signature line for this, like "Don't Want to Be Tonstant Weader," but (a) I kind of do want to be her and (b) that's not how the chats work anyway. Many thanks.
Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Avoid talking about your view of the book and just say how wonderful it is for her to have this multi book contract and ask her to tell you what she's coming up with for the next title in the series.
Baltimore Md.: Re Baron Corvo: Frederick Rolfe claimed that he had been given the title of Baron Corvo by an Italian nobleman who had the freedom to confer titles he controlled. AJA Symons never really questions it. The Quest for Corvo is one of those books I have kept by my bedside for years, just to pick it up occasionally and get lost in a vanished world.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks.
Houston, Texas: OK. One more question. Do you have a favorite translation of Herodotus? Have you read the new Landmark version? If so, what did you think?
Michael Dirda: I recently read the version by Robin Waterfield, which seemed fine to me. I've got a copy of the new Landmark version but haven't read it yet. Herodotus is so much fun--especially in the first half of the History--that I think any modern translation would be fine.
David Martin: New Guinea? I can't think of any fiction, but in the land of non-fiction, Tim Flannery's Throwim Way Leg and The Future Eaters are fine reading. Alfred Russel Wallace's "The Malay Archipelago" is a classic, though I read his "Island Biology" instead, as a wonderful bit becoming a biologist.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks.
washingtonpost.com: I am interested to read Curtis Sittenfeld's new book, "American Wife," which is based on the current First Lady. Maureen Dowd writes about it in her column today: Dreams of Laura. - Elizabeth
Michael Dirda: CS fans might take a look at this.
Indianapolis, Indiana: Mr. Dirda;
There's a highly favorable review of CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE in the July 15, 2008, issue of THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY. The reviewer, Brian Doyle, among many words of praise, notes, "that this is one of the most riveting and enlightening books I have ever had the fortune to digest." An opinion I share, and thought you might be able to use on the paperback edition.
washingtonpost.com: The Christian Century- July 15 issue doesn't seem to be online yet.
Michael Dirda: Many thanks for alerting me to this. I've actually reached the stage when I can look at reviews of that book.
Monterey, Va. a.k.a. God's Little Acre: In re "Shelves that a deranged magpie would have come up with" I happen to be very fond of Magpies and Jays -- the little brats. Have delved finally into Jules Verne and am enjoying J. C. E. very much. Would "the Wondrous Elizabeth" be, by any chance, Elizabeth Ward, who just resigned as BW's children's book reviewer? I was just getting used to reading her reviews -- rats! Maybe, all you senior editors can take turns reviewing juveniles until you find a replacement.
washingtonpost.com: I am the less-distinguished Elizabeth Terry.
Michael Dirda: Liz Ward is a wonderful writer--we go way back. Did you know that she's the author of one of the standard books on the incredibly difficult Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones?
Chicago, Ill.: So you won't read any more novels about prep schools. But what about prep school graduates who go on to become psychotic killers? I think you've said you haven't read "American Psycho", but I wish you would if only to get your take on it. The blurbs on the back are extremely high praise - from Norman Mailer, among others. They compare him to Dostoevsky; he's taking the American novel in a direction that no one else dares to, but in which it needs to be taken... etc. I reread it recently and I'm no great critic, but it is a very well written book that makes you think.
Michael Dirda: I've heard this before about American Psycho, so who knows, maybe I'll try it some day. Thanks for writing in about it.
Carrboro, N.C.: I don't know how you feel about graphic novels, but since you seem write quite lovingly about British adventure lit (Haggard, Conan Doyle, Stoker, etc etc), I simply must recommend Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentleman. There are three volumes, and all are wonderful.
The third volume was recently released, and it's not so much a comic as a compendium of various "historical documents". Though Volumes I-II focus on a fin-de-siecle team of Mina Murray-Harker, Alan Quartermain, Mr. Hyde, and others, there have been Leagues since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I -- and this third volume is something of a tour. There's a serial comic about the life of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a faux-Shakespearean play involving Orlando and a certain Duke Prospero working for Queen Elizabeth I, and, perhaps my favorite, a pastiche of PG Wodehouse and HP Lovecraft entitled "What Ho, Gods of the Abyss!" Aunt Dahlia summons Bertie Wooster to Brinkley Court, where it seems the gardens have become a bit overgrown with unspeakable horrors and Gussie Fink-Nottle is behaving a bit strangely. Fortunately, Jeeves knows one Mr.Carnacki, who is experienced in such matters...
It's all quite sporting, really, and entirely worthy of being included in Milady's Boudoir.
Michael Dirda: Do you know P.C. Cannon's classic Wodehouse-Lovecraft pastiche, "Scream for Jeeves"? Same idea.
I read the first two League volumes--indeed I belong to a group here in Washington that calls itself The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and its members, aside from me, are extraordinary. I liked the books, but I wasn't enthralled by them--once I got the way the jokes worked I just wasn't as taken with the execution as I'd expected. Don't know why, quite. Stil, I do think it's a very neat and fun idea. Jeff Nevins has done a couple of annotated companions to the first two volumes, as well as compiling a mammoth Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana.
Hbg. Pa.: I thought it was "Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up." I get the point, though.
Michael Dirda: Dorothy Parker on, was it, Margot Asquith?
books that take place while....: Then there is Susan Minot's Evening (as I recall its title) that takes place while she performs oral sex on her boyfriend. quite an achievement!
Michael Dirda: Hmmm. or rather Mmmmm. There's also Harold Brodkey's opposite version, "Innocence" and the somewhat similar "Time of Her Time" by Norman Mailer.
Going to New Guinea: In "The Sex Lives of Cannibals", the author lived on a Pacific Island, and found the ex-pats were starved for reading material (they had ship delivery). Bring LONG recent books by the crateful, and you will be loved.
Michael Dirda: There you have it.
Lexington: Michael, By now most people know of Thomas Disch's death last Friday (an apparent suicide, from depression). Who can forget those seminal works of SF-"334" and particularly "Camp Concentration", out of print but certainly worth reading today in light of current events.
Another death, also on July 4, in Maine has not been so noticed, Janwillem van de Wetering, after a long illness. He hadn't published in a long while, but his mysteries of the 70s and 80s about two detectives, Grijpstra and de Gier, set in Amsterdam brought the city alive for many readers just when Sjowall and Wahloo had stopped writing about Sweden. Now we are flooded with many excellent Nordic mysteries, but van de Wetering was one of the first.
washingtonpost.com: Washington Post obit of Thomas M. Disch (July 9)
Michael Dirda: Oh, I"m sorry to hear about van Wetering. He wrote an excellent book of Robert Van Gulik, author of the Judge Dee mysteries. I also have his book The Empty Mirror, about his painful year in a Buddhist monastery. Sigh. I hate death.
Lewes, Delaware: I love my summer books and usually buy them and keep them, as opposed to borrowing. I planned for "The Almost Moon" to be the one and purchased it already but have since read many negative reviews so thought I would wait. A few of my past loved reads have been "She's Come Undone," "The Corrections," "The Lovely Bones," and "Diary of a Geisha." Can you suggest a novel for me - you know, for reading on the beach, something large on relationship experiences and heart that a fifty-year-old woman can get lost in without too much intellectual reasoning required? Thank you and have a good day!
washingtonpost.com: I am going to suggest a few: "A Ship Made of Paper" by Scott Spencer since that went over well a couple of weeks ago... "Three Junes" by Julia Glass (who'll be doing an online chat on Monday! stay tuned for that)... and one I read last week, "Free Food for Millionaires" by Min Jin Lee. Ron Charles' Book World reviews are also a great resource for contemporary novel-lovers - Elizabeth
Michael Dirda: Again, there is excellent advice above from Elizabeth.
Alexandria, Va.: While reading "Book Row" (a somewhat bittersweet but fascinating look at the now vanished world of New York City bookmen and bookshops along Fourth Ave.) I came across a mention of Christopher Morley's "The Haunted Bookshop." I then read "Parnassus on Wheels" and "Haunted Bookshop" and became a fast fan of Morley (including his hilarious take-off on Henry James in "Travels in Philadelphia"), which also led me to Vincent Starrett's "Books Alive" (a collection of his wonderful newspaper columns on literary matters). Are you a Morley and Starrett fan?
Michael Dirda: Yes, both Morley and Starrett are among the founding eminences of the Baker Street Irregulars, of which I am a member. This past January I gave a talk on Starrett at the annual birthday dinner for Holmes. They are engaging, genial bookmen, and I sometimes think my own approach to reading is in their tradition. Alas, both are virtually forgotten, though a friend of mine is at work on a biography of Morley.
Freising, Germany: Once, while visiting friends north of London, I walked into a book store and saw classic new paperbacks on sale for 1 pound each. I bought three of them, and as of yet they're all still healthy, and the bindings haven't suddenly spronged open or self-destructed.
I had a copy of "Red Badge of Courage" in my hand, but decided in favor of Conrad and Dickens, and I wonder if I shouldn't have splurged and paid that extra pound for Stephen Crane. Do you think that it's true that Crane foreshadowed the themes and techniques of war literature of the future?
Michael Dirda: Crane is certainly a classic, though some of the alienation techniques of Red Badge are prefigured in the Waterloo chapter of Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma. You should probably read the book, along with Crane's stories "Maggie," "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," "The Monster," and "The Open Boat."
Houston, Texas: I think the Dorothy Parker review was on A.A. Milne.
washingtonpost.com: Yup. Milne. I also like her: "I've never been a millionaire but I just know I'd be darling at it."
Michael Dirda: Yep, that's right. My memory fails again, but she did write a slashing review of Asquith's memoirs.
I love that she named her canary Onan because he spilled his seed upon the ground.
And the famous story about meeting Clare Booth Luce at a doorway. "Age before beauty," said Luce to Parker. "Pearls before swine," answered Parker, as she swept on through.
Maitland, Fla.: Marco Polo? IS there a "definitive text?" Is there a recommended version with explanations, etc? And I will be going to the Atlantic Center when I'm in NSB the next few days.
Michael Dirda: Don't know if there's a preferred text, though there was a book about Polo a few years back, questioning aspects of the hsitory. I think Dover used to have a fat two volume paperback set.
Michael Dirda: Well, fans, I've run out of steam for today, though there are more questions. Sorry. Do try again next week. Till then, keep reading!
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.