Reading List: Summer 2012

So many titles, so little time. That’s the way it feels when we do our reading list call ins. So, how about it? Add your suggestions for the summer reading list here. Of course, we’re happy to talk to you during the show, on Thursday, July 9 from 7-9 pm. I’ll be there to take your calls and recommendations, along with Chris Robinson and John Ernst.

Here are my (Ellen’s) recommendations:

The first book on my list, The Magician’s Apprentice by Ann Patchett. I’m in the middle of Patchett’s State of Wonder, which I also recommend. And, while I’m at it, how about Bel Canto and Patron Saint of Liars if you missed these two gems from Patchett’s earlier work.

Don’t miss The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. I’m going to read When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka’s earlier novel. She has a distinct and wonderful voice.

Thanks to John Ernst, I read Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending. I heartily second his recommendation.

Thanks to my friend Harriet Barlow, I read Still Midnight, the first of the Alex Morrow police novels by Denise Mina (Scottish). This is pure fun reading for dock or hammock. The second two titles in the series are The End of the Wasp Season and Gods and Beasts.

Finally, I’ve just discovered a raft of great titles through the list of Orange Prize nominees. This prize recognizes fine women writers living in the UK. The most recent winner, Madeline Miller for her epic re-telling of the siege of Troy after Helen of Sparta is kidnapped, The Song of Achilles.

John offers these recommendations:

CANADA – Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s first novel since THE LAY OF THE LAND, six years ago, is a knockout. This is, for my money, perhaps the finest contemporary American novelist writing at the top of his form. Read the first two sentences and see if you can stop.

MIDNIGHT RISING: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War – Tony Horwitz

Here is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist focusing with white-hot intensity on John Brown and the eighteen men he led on a guerilla night-time raid on the U.S. Government armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. A marvel of compression of detail and vivid story-telling.

LOST MEMORY OF SKIN – Russell Banks (2011)

Russell Banks deals here with a tough subject, a nether-world of convicted sex-offenders living under a Florida causeway. He does so with honesty and compassion and great literary skill. This is a brave book that deserves serious attention.


This novel swings between two revolutions – Fidel Castro’s in Cuba in 1957 and the civil rights conflict in Albany in 1968. It is full of wonderful, larger than life characters. And as in IRONWEED, ROSCOE, LEGS, and BILLY PHELAN’S GAME, Kennedy seals his reputation as the poet laureate of Albany.

RAMBUCTIOUS GARDEN: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World – Emma Marris

Emma Marris is a young bomb thrower of a nature writer who challenges many of the beliefs of conservationists, biologists, and ecologists. Writing in a jaunty, idiomatic prose, she refuses to accept conventional wisdom. Pristine wilderness? Nonsense. Invasive species– are they always bad? Restoration ecology? To what period do you bring back the landscape? Pre-human? Pre-dinosaur? This is an important and lively book that deserves wide readership and discussion.

THE OUTLAW ALBUM – Daniel Woodrell

This is a collection of short stories by the author of the brilliant novel WINTER’S BONE, which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film. Woodrell writes about the Ozarks and its inhabitants as if he had invented the place. Some of these pieces are brief, chilling sketches. Some of them are stories that in very few pages pack as much wallop as a full-length novel. This man is the real thing.


John’s wife Margot also gets us started with these suggestions:

When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce

A groundbreaking page-turner on the world water crisis. From global place-based water stories ancient and modern to the issue of “virtual water” like the 3000 gallons of water it takes to grow feed enough to make a quarter pound of hamburger without lettuce, tomato, pickle and bun. In the end the book has some reasonable solutions to the this important issue and you will appreciate the abundance of water we have in the Adirondacks as you read it with parched throat.

Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn

Intriguing look by a literature professor on how plastic consumption is moving way beyond nature’s capacity to absorb it. It is an intriguing tale of the author’s search for 28K bath tub toys that escaped a container ship and are still traveling around the world with a parallel to the voyrage of Moby-Dick. The scientific and literary insights make a great voyage.

Triumph of the Cities by Edward Glaeser

A Harvard professor of urban economics argues that environmental success globally depends on the health and wealth of our cities. The book is fast-paced and shatters most myths we have on urban culture. A great read while you are basking in the Adirondack wilderness.

Lest you think I am a one-note reader:

White Truffles in Winter by N.M. Kelby

It is an enthralling read for a Francophile foody or anyone who has sensuous leanings. It is a breathtaking story of the world’s greatest chef, August Escoffier. It is a great romance during wartime highs and lows and I sacrificed a night’s sleep happily to it.


From Chris Robinson:

I spent this past year on sabbatical.  In the fall semester, I was on a Fulbright to Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea.  And in the spring, I was in residence at the Gund Institute in Burlington.  It was a wonderful year of writing, reading and teaching.  I wish every human being on earth could take a sabbatical year in their forties or fifties. It is an opportunity to take stock of what you have done, what you want to do next, and really how you want to live out the rest of your life.  Much of this kind of reflection occurred while I was far from home.  I loved the sense of adventure. The exotic quality of the days and the meals were exciting. But occasionally I would feel a little overwhelmed and homesick. In response, I found great solace in reading Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Through his great essays, I came to see my reading life in spatial terms.  It was like carrying a portable inner home across the globe.  A few years ago, I noted how my reading has, through the years, produced a home entertainment system in my head. I do not have much control over it. Images, passages, characters, jokes, themes, plots, and scenes bubble up into my consciousness almost constantly now.  I’m almost never bored. But reading has made me more resilient and adventurous too, I see.  As long as I can retreat into a book or a poem for a little while each day, I can absorb the shock of the new without fear or frustration.  Enjoyment is enhanced. Nevertheless, I am happy to be back. I’m really looking forward to the new season of Readers and Writers, and the new online presence too.

- Chris

Here’s what Chris has been reading:

Journals and Memoirs

The Journals of Spalding Gray

I loved Gray’s monologues like “Swimming to Cambodia” because they came across as so honest.  The man knew he was a narcissist, and he could be very funny and poignant while reflecting on this quality.  The Journals are, if anything, even more unvarnished than the monologues. You trace his discovery of his talents for writing and acting, the hovering darkness of his mother’s suicide that haunted him, and then his own decline due to depression and then head trauma. This book is a stunning study of how one whose talent was writing from the position of self-absorption lived his life. I can remember whole passages even months after I first read them.

Joan Didion, Blue Nights

A dear friend who is a careful reader of Didion remarked that this was a book that needed to be written, but should not have been published. I think I understand this judgment.  It is not exactly a sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking.  In this memoir, Didion’s focus is on her relationship with her late daughter Quintana Roo.  Didion is deeply critical of the job she did as a mother, and casts herself as untrustworthy as a parent in a manner reminiscent of her memorable line about never trusting a writer. In my thinking, Blue Nights emerges from a great struggle with the emptiness that follows the death of the two people Didion loved most.  I kept drawing parallels between this work and the performance by Juliette Binoche in the film “Blue.” Without love, what are we?

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956

This is the second volume of letters, and they surround, support, and illuminate the most fertile period in Beckett’s writing life. Samuel Beckett is my favorite writer, and to have anything by him that was previously unavailable before my eyes strikes me as a great gift. I imagine that these letters will be read principally by Beckett fans. This is too bad. They are remarkable historical documents that have a lot to teach about the postwar years in Europe.

Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980

Sontag is a source of fascination for me because she is the last true public intellectual in America. How she survived in this precarious role is at the heart of this second volume, edited by Sontag’s son. I admired her public stances on the Vietnam War, on seriousness in general, and her response to the fatwah issued against Salmon Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini.  I thought her smart and courageous.  The journals substantiate this view, but also reveal her insecurities.  It amazes me how little she reflected on her first bout with cancer in these pages, however.  I also read Sigrid Nunez’s memoir, Sempre Susan. Nunez worked as a secretary for Sontag, and in this capacity met and fell in love with Sontag’s son. The three lived together for a couple of years. This is a sensitive and even beautiful little remembrance of Sontag.  Nunez highlights the eccentricities of her boss and friend, and is unwavering in her admiration for Sontag as thinker and writer.

John Keane, Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

I needed a way to pay tribute to Havel after his death this past December. Keane’s book is a fitting study – both an intellectual biography and an analysis of Havel’s successes and his failures.  This is a complex life and career that bridged theatre and politics, imprisonment and the highest political office in the land.
Chris Kraus, I Love Dick and Where Art Belongs. Honestly, I don’t know how to categorize Kraus’s work.  Her well-known novel, I Love Dick is fiction interspersed with memoir and philosophy. It may be the finest example of philosophical novel I have ever read. It is a study in feminism’s capacity to embrace erotic love and to challenge the idea of marriage as a static institution.  Where Art Belongs is memoir and art criticism fused to make a deep point about how art renders the ordinary uncanny and surprising.  Where does Art belong?  Nowhere and everywhere.  It creates its own space and in doing so becomes an event.
Michelle Tea, Passionate Mistakes.  Tea is best known for her work in graphic novels. Passionate Mistakes was her first work, and it is a sustained and entertaining examination of her coming to an understanding of her sexuality and identity as an artist.  So often, she probes regions of identity that have become hackneyed only to surprise the reader with her unique voice and perspective. I really enjoy her work.

Edmund White, My Lives: A Memoir

I think I have read every memoir written by people who came of age in New York City in the late sixties and seventies now.  It is a landscape full of sexual and artistic energy.  White is an important writer on gay sexuality, but he is also an insightful reader and thinker on a range of political and literary issues and controversies.
Pico Iyer, The Man Inside My Head.  Iyer is best known as an essayist and travel writer who lives comfortably on the waves of globalization.  This book, however, is a study of literary influence. The man inside Iyer’s head is Graham Greene.  Greene competes with Iyer’s own father for prominence when it comes to shaping Iyer’s view of the world, his style of writing, and the way he seeks to live his life. That Greene was a flawed human, and a bad Catholic, makes him an absorbing travel companion. His occasional greatness as a writer makes him a worthy literary influence.  If you love to read, then you have had this intimate experience with an author.

Fiction and Poetry

Milan Kundera, The Joke

This was the first of Kundera’s novels that I read back in the mid-eighties.  I did not realize then, however, that the translation I had was abridged.  The unabridged version is now available and it is well worth the second look for its presentation of truthfulness as ironic and anti-dogmatic, and the demands and toll of totalitarianism on freedom.  A man writes a joke on a post card and runs afoul of the Communist Party. His life and career are destroyed.  Out of the ashes comes a new life animated by a desire for revenge.  Brilliant stuff.

Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis

I have been reading the novels of Dick for about two years now. Many thanks to The Library of America for the three volume set I recommended a year ago.  Dick’s novels are full of incendiary ideas housed in works that veer, sometimes wildly, between high art and pulp fiction.  The Exegesis is a massive collection of his late notebooks.  It is the result of a religious vision that revisited Dick on several occasions from the mid-seventies until his death. How do you describe this crazy amalgam of religious reflection, philosophical reflection, and fiction as the fulfillment of divine inspiration?  I keep it on my bedside and dip into it for as long as I can follow a strand of thought.  It never fails to provoke interest that competes with utter incomprehension.

Philip Larkin, Collected Poems

I learned from Larkin that “sex began in nineteen sixty three (which was rather late for me).”  This was enough to lead me to his collected works.  Larkin wrote two kinds of poems.  The first were depictions of the misery of everyday life. The second were ironic studies of the misery of everyday life.  In an odd way, I experience Larkin’s poems in the same way I experienced Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.  Tears are interrupted by laughter; and vice versa.

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

Look, it took me a decade to understand Necromancer, and so of course I am late to the party on Pattern Recognition.  I read this novel in two sittings and wished it had been twice as long.  Gibson is such a profound and quirky thinker that you will not see marketing and consumerism in the same way after reading this novel.  His female protagonists are so strong and smart that I have come to think of Gibson as a feminist author.

Barry Lopez, Resistance

I liked this novel so much that I decided to build an entire course around it.  Lopez presents us with a series of interconnected short stories, each depicting a different way of resisting the corporate, commercial, and anti-ecological world in which we live. The characters are all wounded and in exile.  Their paths are affronts to our normal views of success and healthful living.  The writing is both fierce and beautiful.

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty

What was life like in the Soviet Union under Khruschev?  Is there fictional excitement to be mined out of a planned economy?  These questions were provocative enough to lead me to this novel.  Regarding the second question, I can say that as dull as a five year plan for industry and agriculture can sound from the outside, it had powerful consequences for workers and administrators on the inside.  In response to the first question, Spufford offers us a world where the safety of orthodoxy was eroding and the need for innovation was as great as it was dangerous.

Lars Iyer, Dogma

Two years ago I raved about Iyer’s Spurious, the novel that introduced readers to his two philosophers, Lars and W., as they pondered life’s big questions.  In this sequel, the conversation turns toward religion and messianism.   It is impossible to read these novels without thinking of the Samuel Beckett of “Waiting for Godot” fame.  Iyer is hilarious.
Chris Angus, The Last Titanic Story. I had a lot of fun reading this novel by local author, Chris Angus. If you ever suspected the Nazis of playing a role in the Titanic’s sinking, then this story will be read like vindication.  Even my pal Steven Sauter, NCPR’s resident expert on the Titanic, will learn something new from this book.

Politics and History

Writers for the 99%, Occupying Wall Street: The Inside Story of an Action that Changed America

This is the best book I have read so far on the OWS movement.  There are several out there with dozens more to come this fall.  Hopefully, all of this intellectual reflection on the movement does not signal its demise.  I also enjoyed Occupy! by the editors of the magazine, N+1.  This work is an anthology of speeches and analyses by writers and thinkers.

Chris Hedges, The World As It Is

This is a collection of Hedges’ columns from Truthdig.Org.  I have seen Hedges described as an Old Testament prophet, and I think this appropriate. Hedges is possessed by a moral vision that leads him to bravely confront abuses of power in government, corporate corruption in the private sphere, and the degradation of culture at the hands of self-styled moralizers and religious leaders.  He is an essential voice.

Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century

This book was composed of conversations between Judt and Snyder conducted while Judt was dying of ALS. It is an intellectual tour de force.  Reading it was a humbling, yet informative, experience.  Despite the creeping paralysis and discomfort that Judt endured, he was able to bring his vast reading and reflection into focused responses to the most critical and interesting questions regarding totalitarianism and its aftermath in the Europe of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.

Will Potter, Green is the New Red

The United States government has declared war on dissent by categorizing even the most peaceful of demonstrations terrorism.  If you feel the moral and political need to express your outrage over economic inequality, environmental degradation, war, or any other crucial issue of a local or global nature, then you will be noticed by police and intelligence agencies.  If you stage your protest publicly, then normal police powers can be supplemented by the battery of regulations that emerged in the wake of 9/11 to combat terrorism in order to eradicate this expression of dissent.  Potter’s book focuses on the way environmental and animal rights activists – even those committed to nonviolent protest – have been labeled terrorists, convicted of acts of terrorism, and sentenced to long and cruel prison terms.

Dexter Filkins, The Forever War

This is the best journalistic account of the war in Iraq available in my estimation.  I have many criticisms of the book and some of the arguments Filkins offers, but if you want a sense of the life of soldiers and Iraqi citizens after the fall of Saddam Hussein, then this is a trustworthy and brave account.

Andrew Revkin, The Burning Season

One of the most noticeable events on Planet Earth visible from outer space is the continual burning of the Amazon rain forest to make room for farming and grazing. The larger ecological consequences of this burning are less plain to see, but they can be measured in terms of global climate change and the mass extinction of plants and animals. Chico Mendes was an activist who fought the exploitation of rubber tappers and then the rain forest itself, and he was assassinated for his activism.  This book is an informative and probing account of Mendes’ life and the causes he dedicated his life to advance.


From Chris Dunn, NCPR Listener

I have books to recommend, but how about a new feature:  “Books to Avoid, 2012.“    A reader like you must know some books  are absolutely unreadable, and not even because the plots are confusing.

For example:  The Last Dickens, by Matthew Pearl.  It’s set in the months after Dickens’ death, and involves a hunt for the last chapters of the unfinished Mystery Of Edwin Drood.   The story has a touch of romance (barely present), it has irony, opium dens and dark villains—even a war between publishers.  And  Pearl has done his research.   But I swear to you, it is all clogged up in the most godawful literary style I have ever seen in my life (and keep in mind I’ve read Zane Gray; and, recently,  a whole Tarzan novel of Edgar Rice Burroughs—It lay in my way, as Sir John Falstaff said on another subject, and I found it).  It is, well…a critic once said said of Dan Brown’s writing style(The Da Vinci Code):  “he hails from the school of elbow-joggers—nervy, worrisome authors who can’t stop shoving us along with jabs of information and opinion that we don’t yet require.”  Pearl doesn’t stop with jogging your elbow, he grabs you by the ears, twists your head around and speaks slowly and clearly into your face.    And this as often as he writes a sentence. Worse, it’s not  future information;  it’s about what’s happening now.    He doesn’t believe dialogue and rhythm of words by themselves can carry any weight.  It’s as if he read Hemingway and, say, Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler (to say nothing of Dickens) as examples of how he didn’t want to write.

I repeat all the warnings about Harold Bloom.  He is deadly to any enjoyment of  Shakespeare’s plays.  To compare him to Samuel Johnson  (so the NY Times is quoted on his edition of  Henry IV)  is not to have read either Bloom or Johnson.  His style is grindingly slow, and some of his interpretations  delirious.

But as for books to recommend:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. (2009)

A real, genuine charmer.  Told in letters and a few telegrams, it’s the best  thing I’ve come across in that line since 84 Charing Cross Road.  There is a tragedy, just distant enough not to darken the tale too much (the islands were occupied by the Germans in WWII, and part of the tale is tracing the fate of a woman who was deported to a concentration camp) or dim at all the touch of romance.  I say again, an absolute charmer.

Is it possible to recommend a publishing company?  If so, I recommend David, R. Godine, Publ. (P.O. Box 450, Jaffrey, New Hampshire, 03452)Has a fine and eclectic catalog, and anyone interested in good reading should get a copy.  Here are a few selections that I  have:

A Near Thing For Captain Najork by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake

A children’s book:  Very short, very odd, inventive and  fun.  Tom, working with his chemistry. set, develops “anti-sticky”.  This leads him by obvious progression (he’s something of a mechanic, too) to make a two-seater frog, powered  by jam. He and his aunt (her name is  worth the price of admission)take it out on a trial run; they are, as you would naturally expect, shorty hotly pursued by  a 5-seater pedal-powered snake, piloted by Capt. Najork. (The Cpt. Is angry about being beaten by Tom at sneedball.)

Complications follow and  converge—well, go ahead and find it and read it.  The public library will have a copy as soon as I can manage to let go of it.

The Merchant Of Noises by Anna Rozen;  illustrated by Francois Avril

Also for children, among others.   About a man who rises in the world by seeing, or rather hearing, opportunities where no one else can.  He rises from selling a Klackata! in a stall at an  open-air market to a “TRIKA, TRIKA, TRIKA, TROK!” heard during a walk in a forest on a rainy day, and soon has a manufacturing center where he works on a  FOOOBOOLOOOOOOOFWEEEEEEEEEE, and a pleasant TrooLOOOOlooo among other things. The man’s name, incidentally is Mr. Bing.  “They don’t have that ZING if they don’t come from BING”.

But there is cut-rate competition & fraud.  And the TrooLOOOOlooo mysteriously disappears And then,  one night, armed only with an unfinished ZWIPPP,  He surprises an industrial thief—The ZWIPPP, swung hard, sounds like KLONGGGGG when it hits.

The tale ends  with a rather discreet BLOOPEEEE.

Quite charmingly illustrated,—notice, by the way, how the heads are joined to the bodies,

The Old Man Mad About Drawing:  A Tale Of Hokusai by Francois Place (translated by William Rodarmor)

Hoksai was a very famous Japanese artist—maybe The Japanese artist—of the 19thC, and some of the illustration is reproductions of his work.  All is in color;  the book glows with it.  The story is of how a small boy in the city of Edo met the artist, and what came of it and what he learned. And most of the art is apparently by Place himself, showing daily life in Edo, and it is crowded and wonderful and above praise.  It’s  a children’s book, but don’t let that put you off:  buy it and you won’t part with it—maybe not even to read it to children.  A bright, wonderful, crowded book, full of life.

Also Rotten Island, by William Steig—sizzling color, a little fable about grotesque, bad-tempered monsters on a hurricane-wracked, volcano-prone island and what happens (probably not what you think) when flowers suddenly appear there. But what the fable’s really about is the fun of drawing uncountable creatures and using really violent color.

One last, in this category:  Some Folk Think The South Pole’s Hot.  (Elke Heidenreich, translated from the German by Aubrey M. Woolman, illustration (very elegant) by Quint Buchholz.  Subtitle:  The Three Tenors Play the Antarctic.  Do penguins like opera?  Naturally!  Aren’t they always dressed for it?  The opera is La Traviata, and you haven’t lived till you’ve seen Bucholz’s pictures of Pavarotti, beard and all, playing “Violetta, sweet and tender” (“None but Pavarotti could render!”).  It’s written in verse, and it’s nothing but fun from start to finish. ( And there’re those pictures of Pavarotti!).  The public library may never get this one from me, any more that The Old Man Mad About Drawing.  You’ll really have to write to Godine yourself—and please do.

And just so you won’t think I’m indulging a second childhood, there’s also

String Too Short To Be Saved, by Donald Hall.

I got it just as The New Yorker  published an article of his—serendipity or something.  This is a collection of  recollections of growing up in Maine long ago, when the culture was more isolated and distinctive.  He loved the old things, and tells about them accordingly.

I’ve just started Island Of Vice, by Richard Zacks (2012:  Doubleday).

Subtitle: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest To Clean Up Sin-Loving New York.

The title says it all.  This is the young T.R.,  recently from the west, energetic and determined.

You know about corruption in the big  cities, but rarely so solid a wall of it:  Tammany had and still has its defenders, and anybody can enjoy reading the wisdom of George Washington Plunkitt:  but the police force that it created was a reformer’s nightmare.  And this was a New York City with 30,000 (yes, that’s thousand) prostitutes, and a saloon or maybe even two, on what must have been every corner—all protected by the police, who from patrolmen to precinct captains to commissioners took their rakeoff…well, the campaign and the resistance was fierce, and Zacks tells a fine story, recounting it.

I also started reading, for no particular reason except that it had been standing unopened  in the bookcase for so long, The Life Of Johnson, by James Boswell.  And I finished it.  A monument in biography:  and I wonder if it’s more read about than read.  Of course this is no attempted reconstruction of a man and his times, Boswell was a contemporary, and knew Johnson as a friend; and reading the biography, for a little while you are almost part of  the society of the time.  And you get to meet Samuel Johnson and listen to him.  He was a monument himself, and extraordinary man. (And you can turn him off when you want to, also an advantage.)    Fine and entertaining reading,  if you have time:   like all monuments, it’s heavy—my copy is about 1400 pages not counting the index.

 And now,  from the Last to the real Dickens.

The Pickwick Papers.

I just recently reread this, and it’s good a tale as ever.  (My copy has the original     illustrations, which helps.)  There is no company like the Pickwicks;  and Sam Weller and his father, and even the minor character Mr. Jingle, are worth the whole story.   There’s even an election campaign (in the village of Eatanswill) which ought to be a revelation to anyone who thinks the Fox News channel, the partisan “echo chamber” as I’ve heard it called, is anything new in the world:  the Blues and the Buffs, and their local papers—the Gazette and the Independent, respectively (but not respectfully)—would have understood Roger Ailes instantly.  If you read it on something like the old installment plan—two or three chapters a month—you can follow the Pickwicks through their whole year as your own year passes.  And there’s also the legal firm of Dodson and Fogg, and a look inside debtor’s prison—but nothing really darkens the pleasure of the tale.

Barnaby Rudge.

Prodded by references in other writers—Roberston Davies, Christopher Hitchens—I recently went back to it.  An extraordinary story, though with a slow start.  Its climax is the Gordon anti-Catholic London riots of June 1780; its principal villains (the good are thoroughly good, but the bad are fascinating) Dickens designed to show the forces that led up to it.  There is Mr. Chester(Gent.)the coldest-blooded villain since Edmund in King Lear; Mr. Gashford, Lord Gordon’s secretary, Dennis the hangman (you don’t get more thoroughly nasty than Dennis—get a copy of the book with the original illustrations if possible), and Hugh, the stableman; the latter almost a brutal force of nature.  It was more immediately relevant a year or so ago, when the clamor about the Moslem community center in New York was at its height:   but when it gets going it’s as grand a tale of events and adventures as, almost, Tale Of Two Cities.

—And next I’m going to try The Old Curiosity Shop— (Later:  almost finished.

For Daniel Quilp alone it’s worth the reading.  Certainly one of Dickens’ spectacular villains:   The Richard III (not quite Iago) of private life.  The original illustrations are  unsurpassable.  Yes, this is the one with little Nell,  but don’t think of it as all absurdly sentimental;  it has scenes as dark and grotesque as anything in Dickens—and it has Daniel Quilp.)

Also recent started on a set of CD’s called  Arguably.  It’s a selection of  articles by Christopher Hitchens on every subject you can imagine.  I play them in the car’s CD player, and haven’t stopped listening since, and won’t till it’s over.  I find myself driving just to hear more—it’s  24(!) CD’s, and the Public Library will have them fairly soon.  I recommend them to anybody who wants plain speaking (which takes some art) on social, literary and political matters, which Hitchens had  mastered.  Very good listening.  If you do play them in your car, you may forget to stop driving:  he’s that good.

And in this political silly season when every ambitious politician on the right, especially those who haven’t read it—all of them so far as I can see—sees grave errors in The Origin Of Species and The Descent Of Man, and in spite of the fact that the existence of some of them as living fossils goes a long way to prove both books, Rodale Books has put out a graphic version (they used to be called comic books) illustrating  the Origin.  It is excellent, and what it loses by having to abridge the text it gains by clearly illustrating  Darwin’s argument.  By Michael Keller; art by Nicolle Rager Fuller.  It’s called Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species:  a Graphic Adaptation.  For Rodale Books information:  (Special Markets Department) Rodale, Inc.  733 Third Avenue, New York, NY  10017.

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