Dirda on Books

Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World Columnist
Wednesday, September 10, 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 here.

An archive of his discussions is available here.

Dirda was online Wednesday, September 10.

A transcript follows.


Michael Dirda: Welcome to Dirda on Books! After a coolish, almost autumn-like morning, the sun is out here in Washington. I've just come back from a walk to the bank and the library, and so have absorbed my Vitamin D for the day. For lunch I had left over green beans, crackers and blue cheese, and a cup of butternut squash soup, the last of which is beside me now in a cup. The past few days I've been working on a longish book review that just refuses to come together. Ah, that phrase: Remember "The A Team" and George Peppard saying "I love it when a plan comes together"?

Now that summer is slowly coming to an end, we are entering the great time for reading: Late September through about mid April. That time, I guess, between harvest and planting, when it gets dark early and the weather isn't always very inviting for excursions. Anyway, I hope everyone here has some good books lined up for the fall.

And now, let's look at this week's questions.


Washington, DC: I just read The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison. It was incredibly well-written. What other book of hers would you recommend?

washingtonpost.com: I read "Exposure" years ago and remember liking it. She has a new one out, "While They Slept," which is about a horrible true crime (there was an article about it in the Wash. Post Magazine recently). - Elizabeth

Michael Dirda: I'm going to let my invaluable producer and partner on this show answer that one. See below.


Woodley Park, D.C.: Can you recommend a biography of Henry VIII? I just finished reading Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII and I'd like to learn more about the King himself. Thanks!

Michael Dirda: Hmmmm. Back some 15 or so years ago, some publisher was bringing out a line of biographies of the major monarchs of England--I suspect that Henry VIII would be in it. I think the books just bore the names of the monarch in question.

What I love most about Henry VIII is that the Pope gave him the official title "Defender of the Faith." Just goes to show that it doesn't pay to tempt fate, even if your sitting in the Vatican.

J.E. Neale is the classic biographer of Queen Elizabeth, and I bet that if you find that book he must have a bibliography with some good Henry VIII titles in it. Also, didn't Fraser acknowledge some authorities? As I've grown older, I"ve discovered that I read the acknowledgments and the bibliographies of nonfiction books before I read anything else in them.


Freising, Germany: In an interesting interview with Paul Theroux in the Wall Street Journal, asked why he retraced his steps from "The Great Railway Bazaar" for his new book, "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star", he replied, "I really didn't want somebody else taking my trip". As someone who perhaps invented the genre of travel writing, he doesn't want other travel writers to hang their stories on his peg.

I've never read any of Theroux's travel books, only the novels, "Mosquito Coast" and "Jungle Lovers", but I can relate to the stimulation and excitement of prolonged travels. During my own extended knapsacking travels through Europe, the inspired letters that I wrote to family and friends caused some to suggest that I should pursue a career in writing (Unfortunately, these letters have all disappeared). The adventure and excitement of meeting new people and the unstructured and spontaneous choice of destinations were incredibly invigorating. But after starting my office job and career, the creativity and inspiration seemed to dry up.

I've been amazed at writers who can do the 9:00 to 5:00 thing and then go home to write some really inspired fiction. I once read that Tolkien wrote the "Hobbit" at home after work and after putting the kids to bed. Is the key to success perhaps the ability to overcome the daily grind and retreat into some creative space afterwards?

Michael Dirda: Theroux certainly didn't invent the travel book. Take a look at Alexander Kinglake's Eothen from the mid 19th century, or Robert Byron or Graham Greene or Eric Newby or any number of other writers.

As for writing after a 9 to 5 job: Yes, people do do it, though I think many try to get up early and put in a couple of hours while they're at their freshest. It does take self-discipline obviously, and a burning desire to get one's story or poem or essay down into words. I myself used to write all my reviews after having spent a full day working as an editor at Book World. I sometimes wonder if the pieces would have been better had I been fresher. But now when I can write any time, and do, and need to, I find it isn't really any easier: There are always distractions, plus I"m not any good at multitasking. I do one thing, then move on to the other.

All of which said: If you rally want to write, you do what you need to do.


No biography should be more than 200 pages: And yet I've taken it as a personal challenge to make it through Peter Ackroyd's 1,000+ page biography of Charles Dickens. And I read the Dickens because I read Catherine Peters's biography of Wilkie Collins called "The King of Inventors." And I read the Peters bio because not only was Collins's life sort of wonderfully crazy, he hung around with a crazy crowd (poor, poor Richard Dadd...).

Anyway -- I'd like a biography of Bulwer-Lytton (who also gets some face time in the Collins bio -- along with the wonderfully put-upon Rosina and her "A Blighted Life"), and I was wondering if you, or someone else who reads this chat, had any suggestions of a good bio. Even if it is eleventy million pages long.

Michael Dirda: Long ago, Michael Sadleir produced a partial biography of Bulwer Lytton and his wife--theirs was a terrible marriage. Sadleir was the great rediscoverer of Victorian fiction, and its greatest bibliographer, and the great champion of Trollope (who boasts of four or five recent, and all very fine, biographies).

There is material on Bulwer Lytton in books on Victorian literature by S.M. Ellis and, oh what is that guy's name? Collected Victorian lit, with an interest in supernatural stuff. My mind is going. There's also information on Bulwer in Ellen Moers' fine study, The Dandy.

It was this last that led me to read Pelham, B-L's first big success and a book that established the dandy hero for the century. It's really quite amusing, with a good mystery and some wonderful lowlife scenes in Paris and London.

Bulwer, in general, is much maligned because of the opening of Paul Clifford--It was a dark and stormy night--but his weird and supernatural fiction is classic, see such novels as Zanoni and A Strange Story.


Orlean, VA: Re novels about storms last week: No one has yet mentioned Frank R. Stewart's 1941 "Storm" which launched me on a lifelong interest in meteorology. It is considered by some as the best weather novel ever written.

Michael Dirda: Isn't that George R. Steward? He later went on to write the classic post Holocaust novel Earth Abides and to compile a book about the American language called Words on the Land, or something like that. This last was recently reissued by New York Review Books.


Rockville, MD: I was rather surprised by some of the reaction to the poster last week who essentially asked "Why should I read today's fiction?" If I remember correctly, another chat participant felt saddened and even used the word "afflicted" in reference to the original poster, which I thought a bit unfair. I would actually concur to a substantial degree with the comments that "Why should I read?" made. Too much of today's fiction seems to fall into the vapid, navel-gazing category. Michael Chabon also has commented along the same lines. I don't know if Chabon was referring specifically to short fiction or not, but he said the exceptions to "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story" were too rare. The difficulty in separating the wheat from the self-absorbed chaff is why I read reviews and why I visit this chat week in and week out, but also why an increasingly larger portion of my reading list is made up of classics and nonfiction.

Michael Dirda: Thank you for the fine comment.


Albuquerque, NM: I notice in Bound to Please and Classics For Pleasure you mention quite a bit of critics and literary essayists that you like: Davenport, Wilson, Amis, Auerbach, Vidal just to name a few. But, unless I'm misremembering, I don't recall you ever mentioning Lionel Trilling.

I don't know much about him myself, but I ran across a copy of The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, a collection of Trilling's essays and I perused the Table of Contents. Looked interesting enough to spend 5 bucks on so I bought it.

So, out of curiosity, what is your opinion of Trilling's criticism?

Michael Dirda: I have some trouble with Trilling. He wrote some wonderful essays on Jane Austen and On the Modern Elements in Literature, and I recall his reflections on the books he read for his class on modern literature: The Birth of Tragedy, Heart of Darkness, etc etc.

But Trilling was generally humorless--very earnest, morally serious, and so I found it hard to really bond with him. He does seem to have fallen from the radar more precipitously than I would have thought possible. But very few critics survive the lifetime of their students.


Chicago, IL: Philip Roth has exactly captured my feelings about cellphones. In "Exit Ghost," Nathan Zuckerman has returned to Manhattan after a ten year self-imposed exile in rural Massachusetts, where he sees no one and watches no TV. The thing that strikes him most on the city sidewalks is everyone has a phone to their ear. He thinks, "What had happened in those ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say - so much so pressing that it couldn't wait to be said?"

Michael Dirda: Yes, I remember that line (I reviewed Exit Ghost). I sometimes feel that about everything technological. For all the wonder and usefulness of the internet for communication and information retrieval, and the value of iPods and cell phones, I do think that solitude has suffered. We are so seldom alone any more. But we need to commune with ourselves, to think about things, to look at nature, to talk with our neighbors. Nowadays, people talk on their cell phones even when walking their dogs. I thought that the function of walking a dog was to put yourself in a meditative relaxed mood. Sigh. I sound an old fogey. But we do need silence in our lives, and it's getting hard to find it.


Chicago, IL: I just finished "Saturday" by Ian McEwan, the first of his books I've read, so I didn't really have any expectations. I won't be reading any of his other novels. It was ponderous, labored, rhetorically thick and therefore perhaps to my mind pretentious, or do I mean pompous? It was like a big bloated beer gut, but a beer gut bloated - indeed, rendered distended, turgid, and tumescent - by the finest chardonnays, Gewurztraminers, and Sauvignon Blancs, sipped (quaffed?) while listening to Bach Partitas. It was bereft of conciseness, brevity, midgetude, terseness, laconism, abbreviation, and pith, its rather meaningless, hollow sentences curled around each other like vines choking a tree trunk, maybe a turkey oak. Paragraphs wended, labyrinthinely, toward a ridiculous and pat conclusion. Even when things happened, they were narrated along with the protagonist's meandering thoughts - and by thoughts, I mean those electrical impulses traveling from synapse to synapse between the neurons and glial cells in the nodes of the brain - as he moved through that last day of the week, also known as Saturday. This is how I would describe the book if I were writing in the style of, say, Ian McEwan.

Michael Dirda: Very amusing, though I think far more highly of Saturday than you do. Most people, though, were disappointed with Saturday. That said, John Banville delivered a similar slash-and-burn review of the book when it first appeared. If you want to see McEwan at his most amusing, try "Amsterdam." He's really a good writer, as admirers of "Atonement" will tell you.

And that Bach of course is played by Angela Hewitt.


Pittsburgh: To Freising: I feel I do my best translating for a couple hours before anyone else is up, typically 5-8 AM; not only is it quiet at home, but there are few emails and no phone calls or other interruptions. A friend who's been working on an historical novel for quite some time does the same thing, before leaving for a "day job," which supports both family and writing. I know others who prefer to write in the evening after work, although I'm usually pretty tired by then and only up to doing the more mechanical or mundane writing/research tasks. So it's to each his or her own, I guess.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. Once it gets dark, I find it very difficult not to fall into caveman mode: I want blazing fires, warming food and drink, and the prospect of bed. It's hard for me to work seriously in the evening.


Rockville, MD: One of my favorite books of all time, "Blindness," is going to be a movie this fall. Does a movie ever do a book justice?

Michael Dirda: Is this Henry Green's Blindness? Or Jose Saramago's? Must be the latter.

A few movies do their books justice: The Leopard, for instance. But movies and books are so different really--pictures vs. words, an inexorable forward pace set by someone else vs. the opportunity to pause, linger, reread, and reflect. Etc etc. But movies, being spectacle, often have greater impact than books. A short sharp shock vs. the slow percolation of the spirit.


Lenexa, Kan.: Speaking of writing reviews, I enjoyed your recent NYRB review of McMurtry's "Books: A Memoir." I especially thought the ending anecdote both appropriate and fun--where a young Dirda (Cornell PhD, all but dissertation), drives nearly impecuniously to Washington, and is outbid in a book auction of a rare William Morris book by a "slight man with dark hair and Buddy Holly glasses" whom you later learn was McMurtry himself. Trying to remember (you've probably written and told us) how did you meet your wife? Also, for no good reason, was your "old Impala" a white '63 by any chance? Thanks again.

Michael Dirda: Just to clarify: I did finish that dissertation in order to, as my father used to say, "get that diploma in your hip pocket."

A 1966 red Impala.

I met Marian when she was a first year student at Oberlin College. I was a junior counselor for a group of freshman men who ate their meals at the first year women's dorm. One of them invited some girls to his room to listen to music; I dropped by, and while listening to Schonberg's Verklarte Nacht started talking with this remarkably attractive blonde woman. And so we met.


Incline Village, Nevada: For biographies of Henry VIII: David Starkey is very good, and Alison Weir is as well; both fluent, reliable biographies. There is also a great deal of enchanting Tudor fiction (OK, and TV mush, too): classics, like H.F.M. Prescott's "The Man on a Donkey" as well as novels: Phillipa Gregory's "the other Boleyn Girl," most famously, and Ford Maddox Ford's terrific "the Fifth Queen," and mysteries -- C.J. Sansom has an excellent series featuring a lawyer, Shardlake, that is also historically very sound and full of interest (did you know, for example, that the poor used to wade in ponds to be bitten by leeches to collect them and sell them for medical purposes? Probably didn't even have a union...) Finally, if you drive a good deal, there is a very easy to hear series from the teaching company on Henry VIII and his time. Started out as a brilliant, promising young man ("The most beautiful in Christendom") and ended as a grotesque monster. Interesting, as Weir notes, that next to the biblical passage "I used to be young and now am old and have never seen a righteous man forsaken" in his personal Bible, Henry scrawled "dolorus dictum" -- a sad/tragic saying. Indeed

Michael Dirda: Wonderful and very useful post. Many thanks. Alison Weir was the biographer I was thinking of, though I'm not sure she wrote in the series I described. And I love the biblical passage and comment.


Gaithersburg, MD: Last week you mentioned having read a particular book when your French was still fairly primitive. I've recently taken an interest in learning French, much of that having to do with wanting to read some of the classics in their original language. This was actually prompted by my picking up a French edition of a Jules Verne work when I was in Quebec City recently. I took it home and compared it to the English translation I had, and I was appalled by how much text the translator chose to omit altogether. In any case, I'd like to ask, how did you come to improve your ability to read (and perhaps communicate in) French? Classes? Consistent, determined exposure to French-language texts?

Michael Dirda: Jules Verne has been, until recently, notoriously badly served by his English translators. But if you look for recent editions from Penguin, Wesleyan and Nebraska, in particular, you will find excellent fidelity to the French.

I wanted to read books, not just study grammar, so I worked my way slowly through L'Etranger, which is simple French, all things considered. Then I read La Cantatrice Chauve--a play by Ionesco, which is very funny. "Et la cantatrice chauve?" "Elle se coiffe toujours de la meme facon." This was as a senior in high school, when I was taking French 4. I continued to study French in college, then went to France on a summer program in 1968 and then returned there in 1970-71 to teach in a lycee in Marseille. By that time I knew French very well, though now I've forgotten more than I like to think about. But I can still read with some facility. Just last night I picked up my Pleiade La Fontaine to read the famous passage in one of the fables:

Amants, heureux amants, voulez-vous voyager?

Que ce soit au rive prochain . . .

It end with the line "Ai-je passer le temps d'aimer?"

The best way to learn French, of course, is to go to France and fall in love with a native who knows no English. I had hoped it might be my method, but alas I just had to slog away.


New Lenox, Ill.: I read "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum, which I have in a facsimile of the first edition, by Books of Wonder (William Morrow and Co.). I was surprised to discover that the wicked witch's shoes were actually silver in the book, as opposed to the ruby slippers of the movie.

Also, thanks to your review here - which was a serendipitous moment, as death has been even more on my mind than usual - I read "Nothing to Be Frightened Of" by Julian Barnes. He wrote, "Who can predict the mind's response to its own short-dated termination?" and that Arthur Koestler, who observed deaths in Francoist prisons said, "One's disbelief in death grows in proportion to its approach."

Re: Solitude - I don't think you sound in the least bit like an old fogey. Personally, I relish solitude.

Michael Dirda: Thanks. Anthony Storr, the Jungian psychologist, has a good book called Solitude: The Return to the Self.


Lansdale, PA: Ah, what woman can resist Schoenberg? Actually, the Tristanesque Verklaerte Nacht is quite seductive. How might your life have changed if it had been Erwartung? Have you read Ann Veronica by H. G. Wells? An older man attempts a seduction of the titular heroine at a performance of Tristan. An earlier poster mentioned Bach Partitas and Ian McEwan. Can you think of any other literary scenes which have specific musical accompaniments?

Michael Dirda: It was I who couldn't resist Schoenberg. Still can't. And my hands tremble and sweat at the prelude, love duet and liebestod in Tristan.

I have always meant to read Wells' non sf novels, especially Tono Bungay and Mr. Polly, but haven't so far.

Vikram Seth wrote a rather sentimental novel called An Equal Music, that is full of musical stuff since the main characters are part of a string quartet.

I'm sure there must be plenty of better examples. Any help?


Annapolis: Can we add Their Eyes Were Watching God, God of Small Things, and Prince of Tides to the Storm List?

Michael Dirda: We certainly can.


Freising, Germany: A question for Elizabeth: What do I need on my computer to listen to the Book World Podcast?

When I click on the link, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/mmedia/photo_podcast.xml, I get a page of source code, for example.


washingtonpost.com: OK, just because I used to produce the BW podcast and now work at washingtonpost.com does not mean I am an expert on this. I don't even have an iPod, though the new ones are VERY tempting. That said, here's a link to hear the latest BW podcast streaming on your computer. I am sending your comment to the A/V dept here so they can check and make sure nothing is amiss. E-mail me at elizabeth.terry AT wpni.com and I'll send you any follow-up I get from them. Everyone should listen to the podcast! I am a public radio veteran and it's just as good as anything you'll hear out there.

Michael Dirda: Thanks, Elizabeth.


On McEwan: I, too, am not a fan of his books, but for some reason I very much enjoyed "On Chesil Beach." Short and with wonderful characterizations.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Orlean, VA: Re: "Storm". It's Stewart. Amazon has a 2003 reprint out, by Heyday Books.

Michael Dirda: Thanks for confirming.


washingtonpost.com: Trying again on that podcast link: Latest BW podcast


Strafford, Pa.: Michael, I'm looking for a book focusing on father/son relations to share with my 27 year-old son, who's in the hospital after an extensive battle with a viral infection. Something more contemporary than Turgenev or Lawrence, and The Road, suggested by a friend, is far too bleak for me. Any ideas? Thanks so much.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. Paul Auster writes a lot about fathers and sons, though usually the fathers aren't good guys. Try Moon Palace--a very absorbing book.

But how about one more classic: Edmund Gosse's wonderful Father and Son. Check it out.


Re: 8th Henry book suggestion: Have you noticed that Dirda on Books is a hive mind, where books are traded as pollen? You, of course, are the queen bee.

Michael Dirda: Hmmm. I don't know if I want to be a queen bee. Couldn't I be the champion stud amid a herd of thoroughbred fillies? Probably not. The imagery of exchange and sharing wouldn't work quite so well.


Rockville, MD: I've generally enjoyed Neal Stephenson's work. The books in his Baroque Cycle were difficult in places but in my opinion ultimately worth the time. Having said that, there was a certain edge to his writing in Cryptonomicon that's been hard to find since. The wryly amusing metaphors that were peppered all through that book, for example, were few and far between in the Baroque Cycle. Nonetheless, I will pick up Anathem and give it a go. Being the geek that I am, I loved the "info dumps" about mathematics, cryptography, alchemy, etc. in Stephenson's earlier books; I'm less confident, however, that I'll similarly appreciate the more esoteric info dumps and debates about cosmology, philosophy, and semantics in Anathem. Anathem is beginning to feel a bit more like an obligation than a pleasure read but I hope to prove myself wrong in that regard.

Michael Dirda: Well, I presume you saw my review. I found much to admire, and little to love in the book, and lots to work my way through, diligently. I wish it had been otherwise.


New Lenox, Ill.: Re: Yes, I've read Anthony Storr's "Solitude: A Return to the Self," which is a good book that I have in a first edition.

Michael Dirda: Good. I used to know Storr. By the way, someone earlier mentioned Catherine Peters' biography of Wilkie Collins. Storr--now dead, alas--was Peters' husband.


Rexburg, ID: I know you are an Arthur Conan Doyle fan. Any thoughts on "Arthur and George" by Julian Barnes? I've never read Barnes but he's been talked about here quite frequently. Thanks.

Michael Dirda: I reviewed A and G for Book World. You can probably find it archived somewhere. It's a good book. But you should start with Barnes' early succes fou: Flaubert's Parrot.


The Wizard of Oz: MGM changed the shoes to ruby because they popped better against the yellow of the Yellow Brick Road.

(To the person who read the book: Were you surprised at how much food that little child could put away? It seems like every other page of TWoO, Dorothy was eating another meal.)

Michael Dirda: Hey, you grow up in the Kansas dustbowl and you tend to eat whenever you can.


Richmond Hill, GA: King Henry VIII by J.J. Scarisbrick is a superb biography of that monarch. It came out about thirty-five years ago, when I was doing my graduate work in British history and was justly celebrated then. He does an especially good job on Henry's divorce, why he didn't get it from the Pope, and how he could have gotten it if he hadn't stubbornly required Wolsey to use the arguments Henry thought up in asking for it instead of others that might have worked better. I thoroughly recommend it.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


music in books: Off the top of my head: In The Pilot's wife, the main character finds Robert (the lawyer) playing Chopin on her piano.

In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne is playing when Colonel Brandon arrives for the first time.

The book The Mozart Season is about a young violinist entering a Mozart sonata competition so music is everywhere in that novel.

Ann Patchett's Bel Canto--lots of opera. The singer is actually based on Renee Fleming, I believe.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks.


Minnetonka, Minn.: Michael, I'm reading Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night and thinking about her personal history of having a child out of wedlock and keeping it a secret. Since reading her biography and then looking at her books again it gives it an interesting twist. I know we have discussed trying to just read books at face value but I can't help reflecting on what the author was thinking. Any thoughts?

Michael Dirda: Well, once you know some biography, it does enhance/poison/affect one's reading of the fiction. One is no longer pure. Some modern writers exploit their auras and benefit in larger sales. If you're good looking, have led a scandalous youth, then people are going to read a coming of age novel through the biographical lens.


Indianapolis, In.: Mr. Dirda;

The latest in the Library of America series, a volume devoted to some of Philip K. Dick's works, just arrived at the library where I work. Do you have any opinions about this series?

Thank you.

Michael Dirda: The Library of America--I love the idea of it, but don't care that much to actually read the volumes. I'm a one novel, one volume kind of guy. I also like my books to look different from each other, so tend not to like multi-author sets. But this is just me. The LOA volumes are good value for money and some are really valuable contributions: The Henry James criticism, in two volumes, would be impossible to find outside the LOA.


Chicago, IL: A poster asked: "Can you think of any other literary scenes which have specific musical accompaniments?"

One of my favorite musical pieces - "Dueling Banjos" - in Deliverance!

Michael Dirda: Yes. Don't you love the tee shirts that say "Paddle faster. . . I hear banjo music."


washingtonpost.com: Dirda review of Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Michael Dirda: Here you are.


Ashcroft, BC (BR): Baum's silver slippers in the original Oz books were changed to ruby for the film, because it was felt that they would look better in the Technicolor Oz scenes than would silver.

I like the story about how Baum came up with the name for his magical land: he was reading the story to some children, who wanted to know the (till that point unnamed) name of the place Baum was writing of. He glanced round the room for inspiration and saw a filing cabinet: one drawer labelled "A - N", and the other labelled "O - Z". So he called his land 'Oz'.

Also nice is the story about Frank Morgan, who played several roles in the 1939 film, including the Wizard and Professor Marvel. For Marvel it was decided by the costume people that something slightly seedy, worn, and out of date was appropriate as far as his dress went, and so someone from the studio went to secondhand clothing shops looking for the right thing. They found it in an old, seedy frock-coat, and brought it back for Morgan. Someone happened to look inside it, and found a nametag stitched in, with the name of the previous owner on it: Frank Baum. Baum's widow was consulted, and she said that yes, it was her late husband's coat, made years before by his tailor. So the frock-coat Morgan wears in the film as Professor Marvel once belonged to Baum.

Michael Dirda: What a great story! You couldn't make that up.


Annapolis: The Soloist by Mark Saltzman comes to mind, and for a father/son book, Marilynn Robinson's new book would fit the bill, I think.

Michael Dirda: I haven't read the new one, but certainly Gilead would qualify too.


washingtonpost.com: Dirda review of Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Michael Dirda: And here's another, courtesy of the invaluable Elizabeth.


Lexington: Michael, Are you familiar with Brian Morton's "Starting Out in the Evening". a wonderful novel about a passing way of life, about New York intellectuals who read small, literary novels and discuss them, read intellectual journals, go to foreign movies, and to readings by little-noted writers ( also an excellent movie with Frank Langella playing the aging, insular writer who suffers a stroke-he also played Dracula when he was younger-maybe a comment upon writers? ). Yes, this is an elitist, cosmopolitan, intellectual "society"; now, those are pejorative terms as used by a recent gathering of anti-intellectuals somewhere in the mid-West. The point of the book is that the writer has written four novels, now out of print, and worked ten years on another. Now seventy, he is forced to look back upon his life by a young graduate student doing her thesis on his books. Was it worth writing four forgotten books,teaching college English, living a life passing out of style, or was the effort itself what mattered? How to measure a life? Today, it's easy to sneer at this but what will be lost when it's gone, rather sooner than later?

Michael Dirda: Odd that you should write so lyrically about a subject I've been thinking about recently. I feel that mine is the last generation of the traditional bookman, and may write about this sometime at greater length.

I need to look for Brian Morton's book.


Lenexa, Kan.: I just read "Renoir, Mr Father" by his famous filmmaker son, Jean Renoir (a 2001 NYBR rerelease). It's a fascinating portrait of the triumph of Impressionism with exciting glimpses of Monet, Sisley, Pissarro, Morisot, Cezanne, Degas, Cassatt, et al. Toulouse-Lautrec comes off as "polite...very clean...gay and agreeable"--at least in his associations with Renoir--and not seemingly self-conscious of his accident-caused deformity.

Young Jean--having grown up around his father's nude models--comes off as blase when his Sainte-Croix schoolmates excitedly hide their stash of Parisian nudes from the good Brothers. The book contains many beautiful plates. QUESTION: I can understand Book World policy of not reviewing rereleases (there's so much new out there crying to be reviewed). Still, I wonder if some flexibility might be useful. What do you think? Thanks as always.

Michael Dirda: The section isn't totally hard and fast in this regard. But New in Paperback and New in Hardcover were often felt to be the places for such reissues. Sometimes a new translation will get an old book a new review: I reviewed Tolstoy and Moravia in the last year or so.


Wye River, MD: How do you rate novelist Patrick O'Brian, best known as the author of the 21-book Aubrey-Maturin series centered around nautical warfare during the Napoleonic Wars?

Michael Dirda: He's quite wonderful--though those looking for C.S. Forester or Rafael Sabatini action do have to wait a while sometimes. These are novels, not just entertainments. And some people are put off by the nautical lingo.


Maryland: I just read a book of P.G. Wodehouse's letters called Yours, Plum. PGW said that during the second world war, he and his wife couldn't get very much meat but when they did get some, they gave it to their dogs. He and his wife ate vegetables and bread. Another reason to love PGW!

I've been wondering about the Count of Monte Cristo. Is that a book I can read by itself, or is it part of a series with The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask? Thanks.

Michael Dirda: You can read it on its own. It's not related to the Musketeers or Iron Mask at all.


Chicago, IL: Mr. Dirda, reading your collection "Classics for Pleasure" was thoroughly enjoyable. You have a way with words and make it an interesting reading experience. Thank you very much for it. You covered quite a few poets too, and this was a treat for me. But not all of it ended quite cheerfully. Your notes on Anna Akhmatova - very well written, btw - prompted me to get (yet again) a book of her translated verses from the library. And (yet again) it got me upset; and it got me working...

My problem is that I know Russian way too well, that I know, understand and feel Russian poetry enough to notice numerous falsities and follies in English renditions of it. The words are usually kind of right, but too often wrong. And in the overwhelming majority of cases the magic is just gone, like it is with most of Shakespeare in Russian... which we, alas, managed to reciprocate quite adequately with, say, Alexander Pushkin. It has often been a frustrating experience for me trying to read these translations. Worse, it makes me want to do "the job properly" myself or, at the very least, to remove those glaring inadequacies-clearly a vice of mine, believing I can translate poetry better than the pros do, but I try nonetheless.

I am wondering if you have ever had similar experiences. I am aware that you have a very good command of French. How well, in your opinion, is French prose and, most of all, poetry translated into English? What is your general attitude towards translations, especially those of poetry?

Michael Dirda: These are very large questions. Why don't we spend next week talking about books in translation, and our experiences in reading them? What translators do a good job? What works, what doesn't? Anything at all involving literary translation. Please resubmit your question then, okay?


Judiciary Sq.: Michael:

I saw your reference to Dorothy Dunnett in Sunday's review. I have read the first two of her Lymond Chronicles. I have enjoyed them, but they are certainly challenging in plotting, language, and characters. Should I continue with the other four? Do they remain of high quality or get repetitive?

Michael Dirda: Follow your instincts. I don't believe in sticking with books if you're not having a good time. But I think you'll enjoy the series if you do go on.


Washington, D.C.: The lack of writers' groups and creative workshops for those who are writing novels and short stories in DC is shameful. Consider the venues that could offer such; Library of Congress, Georgetown/American University, Etc. Only GW offers a workshop. Do you think the Post would ever consider one and would you be willing to coach one?

Michael Dirda: It seems unlikely that the Post would do this. There is the Writers Center in Bethesda.


NY, NY: Considering that this year is the 50th anniversary of THE LEOPARD (1958, Lampedusa), do you think you will be having an online discussion of that great novel?

Michael Dirda: I write about Lampedusa and the book in Bound to Please. Clearly, if you haven't read The Leopard, this is the year to do it.

And that, my friends, is it for this week's session of Dirda on Books. I'm sorry I didn't get to all the questions. Remember that next week we'll take up the issue of works in translation. Any questions and comments are welcome. Till then, keep reading!


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