I once belonged to a reading group where one member, no matter what book we were discussing, would invariably ask, “Who would you cast as . . . ?” In all fairness, he was a screenwriter, but his perennial need to graft the face of some Hollywood star onto a given character in a novel could be irritating. As I read Peter Mendelsund’s quirky and fascinating What We See When We Read, I came to the realization that this casting device may have been this reader’s imperfect way of visualizing what he was reading.
War and Peace. The very title incites both awe and no small measure of dread in many a reader’s heart. Indisputably one of the major achievements of the western literary canon—many would argue the greatest—Tolstoy’s masterwork is daunting in length and scope. At some 1,500 pages (depending on the typeface, of course), divided into 361 chapters, with nearly 600 characters, its sprawling narrative spans the eight years of Napoleon’s 1805-1812 invasion of Russia and beyond. It is a perennial bestseller, but how many who buy it actually read it?
Listen up! With finance, mystery and historical fiction titles, this month's audio column has something for everyone.
In our 21st-century world, it seems disarmingly quaint that an entire printing of Dubliners was destroyed in 1912 for being obscene because James Joyce dared to use the colloquialism “bloody.” In the ensuing years, high-minded censors in both Britain and America continued to attack Joyce’s work, striving to keep his magnum opus, Ulysses, out of the hands of readers. Conventional minds were shocked by the book’s candid depictions of sexual and scatological matters and the “filthy” language Joyce used to portray them. The censors had the upper hand at first, but their campaign ultimately backfired, as the legal challenge to publish and distribute Ulysses transformed the culture and the laws that had tried to control it.
Like the Vietnam War a generation or so later, the Spanish Civil War was a localized conflict that took on global resonance. Major Western powers adopted an official hands-off policy toward the Iberian struggle between socialists and fascists, afraid to upset the fragile diplomatic balance in the uneasy Europe of the 1930s. Still, the bloody hostilities gained the wider public’s attention and sympathies, in no small part due to a coterie of impassioned journalists and intellectuals who took up the cause of Spain. In her meticulously researched and beautifully told new book, Hotel Florida, Amanda Vaill refracts the turbulent events that took place between July 1936 and March 1939 through a prism of six such determined believers.
Two excellent crime novels and a polished memoir on dying make for great listening.
Excellent books from Charles Finch, Lachlan Smith and former secretary of defense Robert Gates make for great listening.
Was John Updike one of America’s great writers or merely, as Harold Bloom famously said, “a minor novelist with a major style”? In Updike, his meticulously detailed and highly readable new biography—the first full-fledged life of the writer, who died in 2009—Adam Begley makes a convincing case for the former view while providing a rich account of the events that shaped Updike’s fiction.
This month's Audio column has something for everyone: mystery lovers, readers of inspiring memoirs and seekers of exciting new voices in fiction.
The genius writer as self-destructing alcoholic is a cliché, but as with all clichés, it originates in truth. Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Poe, Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton—it gets to be a very long list once you begin compiling. In The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing offers a singular amalgam of biography, memoir, travelogue and literary criticism as...