r e c o m m e n d e d   r e a d i n g

True wit should break a wise man's heart. It should strike at the exact point of weakness and it should scar. It should rest on a pillar of truth and not on a gelatin base, and the truth is not so shameful that it cannot be recorded.”

Dawn Powell

ed. Tim Page, Steerforth, 1994

Jim Crace (ARCADIA, Atheneum; SIGNALS OF DISTRESS, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; QUARANTINE, Farrar, Straus, 1998): “Robert Frost is somewhat out of fashion at the moment. Readers find him too unyielding and grumpy, a New Hampshire smallholder and countryman who would gladly scatter any trespassers with his twelve-bore couplets. He's also too conservative as a poet (‘Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.’) But I like grouchy Farmer Frost. I continue to admire his cantankerous love of the land and his solid, intimate understanding of weather, water stone. There is nothing Wordsworthian about his experience of nature. He has fixed that dry stone wall himself, walked ‘the sodden pasture lane,’ snagged his own axe in the alder roots. Robert Frost, THE COLLECTED POETRY (Henry Holt)

WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS, by J.M. Coetzee, is the modern novel I would most like to have written, and Coetzee is the novelist who has most directly influenced my own books. His works are sparkling, disconcerting allegories about exploitation, oppression and imperialism both in and beyond his native South Africa, but written with immense narrative drive and great clarity. BARBARIANS is the story of an ineffectual magistrate, banished to the frontiers of Empire and only realizing too late that waiting for the barbarians to arrive has blinkered him from noticing that the real barbarians are already in command. Could be anywhere.

THE SONG OF THE DODO, by David Quammen, is a recent personal favorite, my fantasy book in fact. If I hadn’t been a novelist I would have wanted to be a naturalist, an adventurer or a traveller. Quammen is all of these. His book is subtitled “Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction” and is ostensibly a painstaking -- almost 700 pages! -- report on the distribution of animal and plant species on islands. This could have been a work of armchair scholarship, but Quammen has the nature of a prowler and the eye of a novelist. We end up hunting dodos, marsupial tigers, dragons and a pestilential outbreak of snakes in Mauritius, Tasmania, Komodo and Guam while Quammen reveals his Theory of Everything. I have never before been so completely captivated by a work of non-fiction. A masterpiece of natural history.”

Jeanette Watson (owner of the late Books&Co., NY, and publisher of Off the Wall, a quarterly newsletter available from Books&Co./Turtle Point Press, 103 Hog Hill Road, Chappaqua, NY 10514): “As readers may know by now, I love erotic books and Ted Mooney’s latest novel, SINGING INTO THE PIANO (Knopf, 1998), has the most erotic first chapter I’ve read in a long time.

“I was riveted by Christa Wolf's new book, MEDEA (Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, 1998), an engrossing retelling of this classical tale which offers an important commentary on the power struggle between men and women and a new take on a familiar tragic figure.

“I thought W.G. Sebold’s THE IMMIGRANTS (New Directions, 1997) was one of the great literary discoverie of last year -- a remarkable work of imagination, compassion, and intelligence, and so I’m very excited to see that May promises a new translation of this German writer's work entitled THE RINGS OF SATURN (New Directions, 1998).”

Isabelle de Courtivron (Professor of French Literature, MIT): Patrick Chamoiseau, SCHOOL DAYS, tr. Linda Coverdale (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1997). Eva Hoffman, LOST IN TRANSLATION: A LIFE IN A NEW LANGAGE (Penguin Books, 1989). Richard Rodriguez, HUNGER OF MEMORY: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY (Bantam, 1983)

“These three autobiographical narratives focus on the difficulties and rewards associated with growing up bilingual and bicultural. Although their authors relate different childhood trajectories (Hoffman is a Polish Jew who emigrated to Canada with her family when she was 13; Rodriguez is the son of Mexicans who moved to California where they brought up their children; Chamoiseau was raised in Martinique), they share many themes. One of these is the ‘hunger for memory,’ that is, the longing for a chilhood paradise where the language of ‘home’ (Polish/Spanish/Creole) represented a linguistic unconsciousness and a seamless, unfragmented, intimate world from which all three authors were painfully expelled. The authors all recount their alienation as they became ‘lost in translation.’

“Hoffman analyzes the confusion involved in the divorce between signified and signifier in her attempts to adapt to a new American culture; Rodriguez emphasizes the painful split he experienced between the intimacy of the Spanish language spoken at home and the intrusion of the public language, English, in school, as it invaded and ruptured the familial harmony. Chamoiseau recounts the cruel transition from a reassuring Creole-speaking home to the hard apprenticeship of official French language enforced by the Francophile Martinique schooteacher who has assimilated the values of the colonizer and is intent on banning all remnants of Creole from his students's speech.

“Finally, all three writers are transformed by ‘school days’ when each becomes obsessed with language, with mastery of the written word, with scholarly or intellectual pursuits which led them to become distinguished writers and journalists. Their stories offer very different resolutions to their experiences. Hoffmann concludes that in a postmodern word, her fragmented identity is in fact the best way to ‘fit’ into contemporary American lfe. Rodriguez makes a strong argument against bilingual education and affirmative action. Chamoiseau weaves Creole and French into the novels which have brought him international success.”


Joan Schenkar (SIGNS OF LIFE/6 COMEDIES OF MENACE, Wesleyan University Press, 1998): “A brilliant exploration of aspects of nothingness: psychological, philosophical, mathematical, and dramatic.” Brian Rotman, SIGNIFYING NOTHING: THE SEMIOLOGY OF ZERO (St. Martins Press, 1987)

“An insouciant examination of the ways in which women and computers are made for each other." Sadie Plant, ZEROS AND ONES (Doubleday, 1997)

“The great, burning, maverick novel of the 20th century, published in 1937. I consider her the Emily Bronte of Modernism.” Djuna Barnes, NIGHTWOOD (New Directions)

“Originally published in 1968, reissued by Virago/Little, Brown, is A COMPASS ERROR, by Sybille Bedford, a brilliant novel of such moral complexity that it makes you shudder.

“And then, I recommend my own dazzling book of plays, SIGNS OF LIFE -- so much fun to read; designed to be read and staged in the head.”

Odile Hellier (Proprietor, Village Voice Bookshop, 6, rue Princesse, Paris 75006): “I highly recommend John Banville’s beautiful novel. He ironizes about the tragedy of a man but is never tragic; he sees from a distance yet highlights the atmosphere of the elite, intellectuals, homosexuals. Everything is closeted but also understood. For me it is the essence of mastery, a novel of maturity in which he is able to balance so many different elements that there is a nobility, almost, in that mastery.” John Banville, THE UNTOUCHABLE (Knopf, 1997)

“I think THE UNQUIET GRAVE is un petit livre de chevet, a book that you should keep by your bedside. It’s about beauty in a time of hardship -- the Blitz, when he is horrified by the dehumanization of mankind. The beauty of which he writes can be that of literature, of myth, of landscape in the south, of his house. He sees that if man needs the peace of the countryside, he also needs the city, the man-made world of civilization. He evokes life again -- conversation, cafes during the day, not the London Blitz at night.”

Cyril Connolly (Palinurus), THE UNQUIET GRAVE (Persea, reprint 1982) “I felt that LeAnn Schreiber's portraits of life in the country were very good; not pretentious but good. In this narrative she has retired to the country because of the gravity of her life -- there has been much loss -- and there finds light. In the microcosmus of her life in this house in the country, she sees the cosmos.” LeAnn Schreiber, LIGHT YEARS (Lyons and Burford, 1996; Anchor, 1997)

Sarah Gaddis (SWALLOW HARD, Atheneum): “In a flashback of an obsessive relationship, the novelist and translator Lydia Davis leads the reader in circles as she shifts beginnings and endings and perceptions in this tale of loneliness, bitterness, and wit. Each scene of the unraveling affair, which is recounted by an unnamed woman and takes place in a fictional California coastal town, is at times as visually stark and stunning as a Hopper painting, at times fractured, as if seen through a prism. As readers we are invited to take the responsibility of confidante seriously from the first, circular sentence to the last.” Lydia Davis, THE END OF THE STORY (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995; High Risk Books, 1995; Serpent’s Tail, 1996)

George Garrett (THE KING OF BABYLON SHALL NOT COME AGAINST YOU and WHISTLING IN THE DARK, Harcourt-Brace): “In a season of Civil War books, some of them highly praised and commercially successful, quietly came NASHVILLE 1864, by Madison Jones; his first book in some years, a lean, evocative look at the Battle of Nashville from a child’s point of view. Of Jones’ fiction Flannery O’Connor wrote: ‘He’s so much better than the ones all the shouting is about.’ That condition is unchanged.’ Madison Jones, NASHVILLE 1864: THE DYING OF THE LIGHT (J.S. Saunders, 1997)

“It has also been a season of Hollywood novels. Muriel Spark adds some new wrinkles to that genre; most of her story takes place in London and France and involves the gifted American film director Tom Richards, his complicated family life, and the dangers and daring of his craft.” Muriel Spark, REALITY AND DREAMS (Houghton-Mifflin, 1997)

“The central figure of Anthony Burgess’ latest and evidently last work is an artist also, a painter and a composer and a great seducer, and BYRNE is unlike any novel you have read or will read in a long time, being written entirely in fluent verse, four out of five parts in Byronic ottava rima, with one section of virtuosity in the Spencerian stanza, all of it, believe it or not, lively and accessible reading.” Anthony Burgess, BYRNE: A NOVEL (Carrol & Graf, 1997)



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