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Michael Dirda
Michael Dirda
The Washington Post
Dirda on Books - Transcript
Hosted by Michael Dirda
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

Books for "18-year-old radicals," Byzantine Empire histories, gift ideas for the book worms in your life, and more!

Following is the transcript of this week's discussion.

To read transcripts of past discussions, visit the Dirda on Books Archive.


Bethesda, MD: What are your thoughts on Welch Everman's unique "Harry and Sylvia Stories?" I find the premise - two characters who appear in each story but whose relationship is always different - fascinating and I can't believe the book isn't better known.

Michael Dirda: Hi, Michael Dirda, coming to you for the last time from beautiful Orlando, and the campus of the University of Central Florida. Next week I'll be back in Washington, and by January back at my usual vegetable stand in Book World.

I'm sorry to add my name to the list of those who don't know these Harry and Sylvia stories. I agree the premise sounds appealing. Perhaps others out there in net land know of them?

Austin, TX: Good Afternoon,

I'm looking for a Christmas gift for my younger brother, an 18-year-old radical, who is looking for some 'good, leftist literature'. My first thought was, 'Capital, of course', but truthfully, I found it one of the dullest books I ever slogged through in pursuit of a degree. I'm not sure if he'll have the patience for it, so I wonder if you have any suggestions that might be a bit more engaging.

Thanks much.

Michael Dirda: Hmm, did you ever read Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon? Wonderful, even witty monography, with the famous lines about history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
If he's interested in the dawn of revolutionary thinking, you might pick up two books by E.H. Carr--an old lefty historian and biographer: his life of Michael Bankunin, the father of anarchism (and coiner of the phrase "the passion for destruction is a creative passion") and his portrait of Herzen and other revolutionaries, The Romantic Exiles.

Fairfax, VA: Michael - it's that time of year again, and once again I've put off buying presents and may hit the bookstores for a clean sweep.

Very broad questions - but what's good, fun, funky, interesting, off-the-wall in the world of books that could serve as interesting, mind-stretching gifts?


Michael Dirda: This is pretty broad--since you don't mention whether you need presents for kids or grownups. Personally, I think really good reference books, geared to the appropriate age, are always good buys. I'm thinking widely hear--The oxford book of aphorisms; the American heritage dictionary; the oxford companion to crime writing, that sort of thing.
Since you live near Washington you could also pick up a sumptuous art book, even one linked to current or forthcoming shows on the mall. For instance, look for an album of Matthew Johnson Heade (Yale), a wonderful painter of seascapes, flowers and birds.
If you have children to buy for, consider a handsome hardback of some children's classic you like--There are a dozen Wizard of Oz books replicated by Books of Wonder.
But go to the bookstore and spend some time looking. Just don't buy what everyone else is choosing--best sellers, titles from Oprah's book club, etc.

vienna, va: You frequently get requests for good "action" books. So far, no one has recommended one of my favorites WT Tyler - I think this is a pen name- He writes very literate thrillers based on foreign affairs and intelligence situations. I don't know why he hasn't had more popular success - I also don't know if he is still writing-. In any event his books are well worth looking for.

Michael Dirda: Yes, they are. Tyler has occasionally written for Book World.

DC: I just finished reading LUCKY JIM, which was, of course, terribly funny. Besides suggesting other Amis books to read, I was hoping you could recommend other British authors, as well as particularly comic novels. I am especially curious about your opinion, if any, of Tom Sharpe. He's been touted various places, but my initial experiences have been that he's rather shallow and unsubtle. Any thoughts?


Michael Dirda: Amis won the Booker for The Old Devils, a wonderful novel about a group of old Welsh friends--funny and touching. I also like his second novel, That Uncertain Feeling, about a librarian who gets involved with a married woman.
Tom Sharpe is very funny--but exceptionally vulgar, crude and offensive. Many view him as Britain's funniest living novelist. Most people feel that his first two novels, set in a fictionalized South Africa, are his best: Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure (I think). He has two or three novels about a schoolteacher's misadventures: Wilt is the first. His novel Porterhouse Blue sends up Cambridge academic life.
Have you read Evelyn Waugh or P.G. Wodehouse? Try Decline and Fall or The Code of the Woosters. Among current Brits my favorite humorist is Terry Pratchett, best known for his Discworld fantasy novels.

Bethesda: Michael

Would you have any recommendations for a history of the Byzantine Empire? I recall that a three-volume history came out a few years ago and I think I saw mixed reviews of it. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Michael Dirda: Yes, John Julius Norwich's three-volume history was admired by nonspecialists for its storytelling verve but knocked by specialists as being rather unsophisticated and even salacious. This may make it the ideal history for the common reader--and there is currently available a one-volume abridgement (done by JJN).
J.B. Bury's old history of the Eastern Roman empire largely covers Byzantium. AS do the later volumes of Gibbon (but these are more than a little slanted, albeit written in prose to die for).Since you live in Washington, you might wander down to Dumbarton Oaks--a center for Byzantine studies--and ask what they currently recommend.

Silver Spring, Maryland: No question, just an addition to your list of books to buy as gifts this season: I bought Washington Irving's 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow' for my 30something brother. He loved the movie and expressed a desire to read the book. I found a wonderfully illustrated children's edition through an on-line book store.
Happy Holidays one and all!

Michael Dirda: thanks for the recommendation, though I gather the new movie is very different from Irving's original story.

Bethesda, MD: While it's not necessarily leftist, I think Austin, TX might want to check out Tim O'Brien's wonderful "The Things They Carried" for his brother. Ostensibly a memoir of O'Brien's time in Vietnam, the book is really about the line between truth and fact and about the way the stories we tell - or don't tell - shape our lives.

Michael Dirda: I presume that Austin TX was looking for nonfiction, but certainly O'Brien is a writer worth reading. Thanks for the recommendation.

Foggy Bottom, DC: Hello,

Oh my! You and Jonathan Yardley really went off on "literary fiction" in your reviews this week. Is it that bad?? Is there a new mediocre literary trend, like the trailer minimalism of the '80s, that's really bugging you right now?

Also, thanks for the reading-writing hideaways everyone shared a few months ago. I did see them.

Michael Dirda: I haven't seen Book World this week, so don't know what Jon reviewed. I think my piece was on Charles Palliser's very good scholarly thriller, The Unburied. I suppose the only trend I'm tired of is first-person memoir. Being a fairly autobiographical writer myself, I never thought I'd get tired of hearing about people's lives. And I haven't--in good, solid biographies. But confession and reminiscence can be deadly unless one has led a particularly exciting life or possesses an exquisite prose style.

Rockville, MD: Hi! You mentioned Wodehouse earlier, and I was wondering if you can point me to a place where I might find a reliable chronology of the Jeeves and Wooster novels. I think I've read all of the short stories, and I love them dearly. But I haven't tackled the novels yet, mainly because I don't know where to start.

Michael Dirda: The biographies would give you the order that the books appeared. Frances Donaldson's life is the standard. But don't neglect the Master's other books--most aficionados consider the Blandings Castle books his highest accomplishment.

Kensington: Hi Mr. Dirda,

Two questions, the first a XMAS gift request suggestion. My wife LOVED -so did I- Instance of the Fingerpost. Can you suggest something like that book? The Unburied, which you just reviewed, sounds like it might appeal to the same type of reader. Yes? No?

Second, why do you think that poetry is never brought up in any of these online chats? Are you a reader of poetry but not a reviewer of poetry? People over the past few months have been talking about potential American Nobel candidates here, and novelists and a playwrights have been mentioned, but no American poets - Hecht, Wilbur, Merwin, Ashbery come immediately to mind. Thanks

Michael Dirda: I reviewed Fingerpost and loved it too--and even met Ian Pears briefly. The Unburied is somewhat similar and a good bet. I'd suggest, though, The name of the rose, Lawrence Norfolk's Lempriere's Dictionary (the English edition if possible; the American is slightly abridged, with some fantasy elements left out); A.S. Byatt's Possession; and John Crowley's great fantasy novel, Little, Big.
I answer the questions asked, and I guess not that many poetry readers want to talk on line. I do like a lot of poetry--much classic material--and among moderns the figures you mention, particularly Hecht. I tend to favor witty, formal verse, rather than woozy philosophical spouting. I don't care for most Slam poetry at all.

Cleveland, Ohio: Is there any reason why the editors of Book World do not compile a list of the year's best works of fiction and non-fiction similar to the list put out by the NY Times? I really look forward to Mr. Yardley's year-end recommendations, but his list is limited to the books he has reviewed. Finally, if you were putting your own list together for this year, what would be on it?

Michael Dirda: I've actually done such a list from time to time. I suppose we don't do a best of compilation because we don't want to imitate the TBR. A few years ago I did a big piece on the best books of the past 25 years; a year or so ago, I did one on the best comic novels; etc. etc. This year I would pick Judith Thurman's biography of Colette, Steven Millhauser's Enchanted Night, Ruth Brandon's The surrealists, and I don't know what else--I'm away from my clips.

Alexandria, VA: Hi Michael,

I love your essays and your chat, which I think is really informative. Anyway, can I get away with two questions?
1.- I'm looking for good novels about colonialism and politics; if you can name some that aren't widely known, that would be especially helpful.
2.- I'm also interested in novels set in ancient Greece and Rome. I've read the Gore Vidal works set in ancient times. Any others I should check out?
Best wishes to you and yours this season, Michael. Thanks.

Michael Dirda: Colonialism and politics--How about some work by the 18th-century philosophers, such as Diderot's Voyage to Bougainville, or Montesquie's Persian Letters? For Africa, you might look at the work of Achebe and Okri and Gordimer.
Mary Renault has half a dozen novels set in ancient Greece; Robert Graves's I Claudius and Claudius the God are only the best known of his historical novels; others include Count Belisarius and Hercules, My Shipmate; and Peter Green has a good novel about Saphho.

Capitol Hill: Michael, I want to thank you for recommending The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke last week when someone asked what your favorite Christmas stories are. I'd never heard of it, and had a little trouble finding it, but this 100+ year-old story is beautiful, and will be a part of our family's Christmas tradition from now on.

Michael Dirda: Thank you for your lovely message. It is a very moving story. I believe there was a reissue of it a few years back as a holiday keepsake.

Great Mills, MD: Several weeks ago in your Sunday column you extolled the "Faber Popular Reciter", and included a wonderful sample. In my attempts to find it I discovered it is now out of print. A book-search company is now trying to track it down for me. I've never had any experience with such companies before, so I don't hold out much hope -a poetry anthology is probably small potatoes compared with the more expensive items like rare first editions, so my guess is that they'll follow the money-. Are there any other collections you can recommend that run in the same vein and would appeal to those readers who, unlike the class of students you described, delight in rattling off "To An Athlete Dying Young" at the drop of a hat?

-Second question: Aside from the obvious benefit of saving your legwork, do you have any opinions or advice about professional book finders?-

Michael Dirda: Yes, Martin Gardner has two splendid anthologies published by Dover Books and they are almost certainly still in print and quite cheap. One is called Best Remembered Poems and the other has a similar title. Gardner prefaces each selection with an informative biographical note about the mostly forgotten authors. Both books collect the sort of patriotic, touching, inspiring verse that generations once memorized in school. I keep my copies by my bedside--not far from my complete Wallace Stevens, a favorite if very different kind of poet.

Charlottesville, Virginia: Having read Graham Robb's fine biography of Balzac, I am now reading life of Victor Hugo. Do you know of well-translated collections of Hugo's work, particularly of his poetry? Bilingual editions would be ideal! How about good English versions of his major prose works--"Notre Dame de Paris 1492" and "Les Miserables"?

On a far different subject, the National Gallery's exhibition of Chinese artifacts makes me want to know more about Chinese history. Any recommendations there?

Michael Dirda: I reviewed the Hugo biography and it's utterly gripping. I wish I could help you with translations, but I read Les Mis in English as a boy and don't remember the version and Notre Dame in French. My usual advice is to look and see if there are any Penguin translations--they are usually reliable, if obviously British in character.
Jonathan Spence is the great historian of modern China. There's a book of his shorter essays just out--I forget the title--that touches on all aspects of Chinese history, and I suspect that judicious use of his bibliography would help guide you to the books.

Arlington, VA: Michael -
have you ever experienced not liking a book, but remembering it long afterward more vividly and precisely than books you are fond of? This happened to me with Paul Auster's the Music of Chance, which I disliked, finding it very dry and stilted, yet I can easily recall its characters, plots, settings, etc. What the heck's going on? In comparison, I can't for the life of me recall similar details in many books I actually enjoyed reading and found powerful, including both classics and popular fiction...

Michael Dirda: I suppose that your being annoyed with the book made it seem all the more vivid to you. Alas, I don't think I share this memory quirk with you: I tend to remember and forget without much rhyme or reason.

Silver Spring, MD: Sorry to make you a 'what should I get' sound board, but....time is getting short. In past years I've had two book hits with my Dad at Christmas. One year, 'The Bell Curve' really caught his interest, another year he loved -meaning he read the book Christmas day and talked about it the entire weekend-, "The Millionaire Next Door." I know these aren't very literary, but have you got any suggestions for something new out this year that will be a winner with this hard to buy for Dad ?

Michael Dirda: Sorry, being down here in Florida has cut me off a bit from the regular flow of titles through Book World. In this case, you might actually look at the nonfiction best seller list, or at the books on the Washington is also Reading list and see if anything seems appropriate.

Centreville, VA: Speaking of poetry - I remember someone in a column, maybe you, asking if anyone still read Sir Walter Scott's poetry. When Young Lochinvar rides out of the west, or the stag at eve drinks his fill, I still get a thrill. Also it seems to me that when you first introduce a child to "grown-up" poetry, this would be the sort of thing to emphasize, rhythmic and adventurous. Maybe this is another Christmas suggestion- an anthology of these beloved old poems that don't get read much anymore.

Michael Dirda: Well, the books I've mentioned--the two Gardner anthologies and the Faber Popular Reciter--focus on just this sort of verse. Scott is a good choice--"Oh what tangled webs we weave/ When first we practice to deceive." Is that from Marmion? Much children's verse does possess the rhythm, humor and adventure you mention.

Philadelphia: I have been seeing new translations of the works of Machado de Assis in the bookstores lately. Have you read any of his works, and if so, what do you think of them?

Michael Dirda: Reviewed the first couple of translations. epitaph for a small winner has been retitled. I didn't think the new versions were much of an improvement on the old. the book done by Gregory Rabassa--a legendary figure in translation circles--was chockablock with typos and awkward phrasings. the introductions, by academics, are overly theoretical and fairly boring.
The novels themselves, however, are irresistible: witty, philosophical, funny, sexy, ironic, and almost post-modern. machado is generally regarded as Brazil's greatest novelist, and he should be more widely read in English, no matter what translation one chooses.

Silver Spring: Re: the gift for the 18-year old interested in leftist works. You might try British historian E.J. Hobsbawm, who writes very well on the 18th-20th centuries. Also the essays of George Orwell and his non-fiction, Down and Out in London and Paris and account of his time in the Spanish Civil War on the Communist side -- can't remember the title.

On novels on ancient Rome, both Lindsey Davis and Stephen Saylor have mystery series set in Rome in the time of Vespasian -ca. 70 AD- and the end of the Republic -ca. 50-40 BC- which are very good.

Michael Dirda: Good suggestions, all. I've meant to read Saylor's mysteries but haven't gotten to them yet.
Well, time's up for this week. Until next Wednesday at 2--keep reading!

washingtonpost.com: Thank you to everyone for joining us today. See you again next Wednesday at 2 p.m.! Also next Wednesday, join Jabari Asim, children's book editor at Book World and author of an upcoming book for young adults, for an hour-long discussion on children's books. He's next week's guest for our new weekly "Schools & Kids" discussion, an hour before Dirda, at 1 p.m.

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