What books are on your night stand now?
- The Last Colony — John Scalzi
- 1776 — David McCullough
- The Children of the Sky — Vernor Vinge
- Wobble To Death — Peter Lovesey
- Ruby & The Stone Age Diet — Martin Millar
- Beowulf — Seamus Heaney (a re-read, if I do it, but it’s in the stack for now…)
- From Dawn to Decadence — Jacques Barzun
To be honest, I keep the Barzun handy in the off chance someone asks me what’s on my nightstand so that I can say “From Dawn to Decadence,” and people who don’t know me might be impressed. I have, over the years, got about halfway through it, but I might not ever finish it.
What’s the last great book you read?
Can’t remember the order I’ve read things, so I’m going to cheat and mention several I’ve read in the recent past that really knocked me out. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Anthony Marra), The Enchantress of Florence (Salman Rushdie), The Big Short (Michael Lewis), True Grit (Charles Portis), The Humanoids (Jack Williamson). Gentlemen of the Road (Michael Chabon).
I can’t believe Marra just popped out of nowhere like that, with the ability to write sentences that astonished me so completely I had to stop reading, needing the time to recover.
True Grit has a singular, immensely entertaining voice. Movies are usually vehicles for plot (which is why no one should ever attempt to film Catcher in the Rye again), but that said, the Coen Bros. version got pretty darn close presenting with dialog the joy of hearing that narrator as if off the page. But the best experience of True Grit is to read the book.
Even science fiction lovers tend to neglect Jack Williamson, one of the early Grandmasters (for those with no stomach for SF, “Grandmaster” is a designated honorific). With the rise of big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, I found The Humanoids highly relevant — at least as much as Asimov’s robot series, and perhaps more so. If you have any intention of reading it, try to find a copy that’s bundled with his lead-in short story With Folded Hands.
What’s the best classic novel you recently read for the first time?
What’s your favorite book that no one else has heard of?
Peter Doyle, by John Vernon. It’s a trans-Atlantic romp that brings together Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (in drag). The mcguffin is the Little General’s little privates. They’re real, and they’re in New Jersey. You could look it up.
Tell us about your favorite New York stories.
Heavens to Betsy, you have all day? One that focuses on literature, though? It’s a late Spring day; the air is cool and the sun is warm. As I enter Washington Square Park through the southeast gate, I hear a man speaking.
He is standing in the middle of the circular patio in the corner of the park. He’s maybe 5’6″ or 5’7″, mid-thirties, bearded, bare-chested, and powerfully built. He’s wearing tailored and pressed dress pants, and expensive-looking belt and shoes. He’s got one muscled arm raised behind him and above his head. In his other hand he is holding a leather-bound volume at arm’s length and at eye level. It’s the pose of an actor being conspicuous about reading.
His voice is a powerful baritone so mellifluous and with enunciation so precise it would make Tom Brokaw weep to hear it. He’s reading in a language I’m unfamiliar with. I speak only English, but living in one of the most polyglot places on Earth, I’ve heard a lot of other languages, and I’ve developed an ear for what many sound like, but I can’t even guess what language group this is in.
His eyes scan the lines, and he speaks. The language is beautiful; I can hear it has a structure and a rhythm and an internal consistency, just as every other language — from Hebrew to Japanese to Shona — has these qualities.
I’m curious and I want a clue. Perhaps just finding out if the writing was in roman, Cyrillic, Arabic, some other system…, I wouldn’t be able to read it, but I might recognize it and leave with some idea. I need to see the words on the pages.
I begin to circle the fellow in as surreptitious a manner as I can, and soon I’m behind him, looking over his muscled shoulder, peeking at two thoroughly blank leaves. Without pause in his oration, he turns the page, and the next two are similarly unmarked, unmarred, pristine.
I suppose I could just ask him, but I figure it might be better not to engage — even eye contact might be a mistake. I listen for a while longer, though. I feel almost uplifted by the conviction in the delivery — the sense that sense is being made. The spoken word, after all, can be powerful. Even if it might be gibberish.
…And I finally realized there are two ways to read that question. Books I love in which at least some of the action occurs in New York City? Little, Big (John Crowley), Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInerney), Winter’s Tale (Mark Helprin), the Dortmunder series (Donald E. Westlake), Motherless Brooklyn (Jonathan Lethem). Off the top of my head.
What do you read when you’re working on a piece? And what kind of reading do you avoid when writing?
I like the question quite a lot. I just don’t have much of an answer. I’m a journalist, and though I’ve written a little bit of fiction, it’s shit (maybe more rewriting…?).
I’ll read anything, any time. Stuff I’m not even interested in sometimes, because you never know when something interesting will present itself from the oddest corners.
I adore obits. You learn the most amazing thing from them. Did you know that in WWI the U.S. had airships from which they could launch biplanes? Just sort of dropped them down into the air out of their bellies. I live for pointless information like that.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
From Dawn to Decadence.
That was only half-joking.
The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown is one of the worst writers ever published — he’s so bad I literally winced reading some passages. Do book editors even exist any more? But I still think he has mad skillz as a storyteller. I found the Da Vinci Code to be an irresistible page turner. Don’t take that as a recommendation. If you go read the Da Vinci Code, you are entirely responsible for your choice.
What was the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
When I was growing up, the coolest guy in the neighborhood was Mike, the older brother of a friend. Mike was a good-looking guy, with long hair and an orange VW bug he could fix himself. I had almost zero interaction with him until one day, when I was 8 or 9, he handed me a battered copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. I consumed that, and borrowed the next two volumes. I wanted a set of my own, and my parents got one for me for my birthday. I cried I was so happy.
I was kind of a dork when I was a kid.
Okay, maybe I’m still a dork. I just don’t break down in tears quite so often.
Not that I’d admit.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Heroes? Arthur Dent. The Brits have a highly populated category of “heroes” to whom things happen, and they just have to muddle through it all as best they can. For whatever reason, I’m sympathetic to such characters. Richard Mayhew from Neverwhere and Harry Flashman are others.
I’m also intrigued by the resourcefulness of people who overcome natural limitations, whether it’s Blossom Dearie singing, Lou Piccone or Wayne Chrebet playing wide receiver, or Dan Brown writing. Which is probably why I also can’t get enough of Miles Vorkosigan, a recurring character in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar novels.
It’s no coincidence that my favorite heroes all have a keen sense of the absurd.
I loved hating Rupert of Hentzau. A fine antagonist on the page, but in one of the few instances where film is better than the book, as portrayed by James Mason, he’s a perfect villain.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Voracious. I read all the Greek mythology I could find in elementary school. Books on dinosaurs. Sherlock Holmes. We had this big wingback chair in the living room, up against a built-in book shelf. I would sit behind that chair and read for hours. A lot of Agatha Christie. Frankenstein when I was 8.
Shortly after that I discovered Ray Bradbury and he was my gateway into science fiction; I still remember getting the shivers reading The Third Expedition from The Martian Chronicles. I still read a lot of SF. I re-read some Samuel Delaney recently and liked it as much as I did when I was a kid.
I consumed everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote as of the time I was 13 or 14 (that took me through Breakfast of Champions, I think). J.D. Salinger too. And more science fiction.
I loved Moby-Dick when I read it in high school. I’ve re-read it twice since, so far. Also in high school Hunter S. Thompson and a bit of David Halberstam (budding journalist, right?) and more science fiction.
Plus the only book I will recommend to everyone, regardless of age and reading habits: The Phantom Tollbooth. If you haven’t read it, go get it. I take full responsibility.
The Princess Bride is almost exactly like the movie, and if you’ve seen the movie you don’t have to read the book, but you ought to read the book anyway because it’s all brilliant.
The second question opens a bit of ambiguity I’m going to exploit. I enjoyed the Harry Potter series all on my own, but I especially loved reading them aloud to my two kids, one after the other.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?
Once upon a time, a woman I was interested in handed me Atlas Shrugged, guaranteeing it would change my life and expand my mind and make me 11% more handsome. The first 300 pages were decisive in extinguishing my desire for a date with this woman. I did not — could not — finish the book.
I made my way through Robertson Davies’ Deptford trilogy a few years back. It felt too much like an exercise in prose than a novel (or three). I found Davies uncompelling.