A wonderful novel

September 11, 2010 • 11:24 am

I’ve recently finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006) by the French writer Muriel Barbery, and give it an enthusiastic two thumbs up—wiggling vigorously.  It was a huge best seller in Europe; not so much in the U.S.  It’s hard to describe, and to save space I’ll refer you to Michael Dirda’s nice review in The Washington Post.

Short take: it describes the parallel lives of Renée, an ageing and unfairly looked-down-upon concierge of a Paris apartment building, and Paloma, a precocious and suicidal 12-year old girl living in the same building.  Interwoven with their stories, which sporadically intersect, are lucubrations about philosophy and art, delivered without pomposity. (Barbery is a professor of philosophy.)  You could consider it an “intellectual” novel, since it deals in part with ideas, but it’s not in the least turgid or didactic. In fact, it’s wonderful, and I recommend it highly. It’s one of those books that, unlike zombie novels, can change your life.

It was given to me by a friend, a college English teacher, who every couple of years sends me a book with the following message: “If you don’t like this, you can’t be my friend.”  (The last one was Middlemarch by George Eliot.)  So far I remain her friend.

I’m sure we all have books we consider so special that we press them on friends, eagerly awaiting their positive reviews.  And how disappointing if they don’t share our ardor!  I’ve had this experience most often with the novels of Thomas Wolfe (the one from North Carolina!) and The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott.  But come the holidays I’ll once again be pressing Capote’s A Christmas Memory on you.

It’s time again to discuss what we’re reading. Feel free to post on a book you’ve just read and liked (or not liked).  What books would you consider a test of friendship?  These comments, by the way, are not a futile endeavor—at least for me. I have a big list of reader-suggested books for future consumption.

80 thoughts on “A wonderful novel

  1. I liked Jane Eyre so I decided to try Villette. I’m finding it more fascinating than pleasant. I’m rereading Breaking the Spell by Dennett. In many ways I find his books and WEIT by Jerry Coyne more satisfying than others by different authors on the same subjects. Also listening to Robert Greenberg’s lectures on the Beethoven String Quartets. (He uses analogies from science that make me wince but he’s a good musicologist.)

  2. If you don’t like Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” I will turn to fatheism.

    For research purposes, I’m working my way through most every major Stephen King work. Right now I’m on the 4th book of the Dark Tower series.

    Also highly recommended:

    Vladimir Nobokov’s “Pnin”
    John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces”

    Saul Bellow’s “Collected Stories”
    Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
    Dostoevsky’s “The Bros Karamazov”

    Donald Kagan’s “The Peloponnesian War” (nonfiction)
    Jan Morriis’ “Journey’s”
    Douglas Hofstadter’s “Godel, Escher, Bach”

    1. Good Lord. Blood Meridian, while a masterpiece, is hugely depressing and revoltingly violent. I think the preface to the edition I had recounts that only about one-half of determined readers can make it all the way through. I, alas, was not in that set. Wouldn’t want to bet a friendship on that particular book! 😀

  3. Really enjoyed Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson; Ileum/Olympos and The Terror by Dan Simmons; anything by J.P. Donleavy; and the short stories (not the novels) of Stephen King which are sublime.

  4. That might depend a bit on the other person’s profession, I’d say. For journalists, it might be Terry Pratchett’s The Truth; for teachers, Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man; for writers, perhaps Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War Stories.

    But none of that would actually come close to threatening a friendship just because somebody didn’t like it. The closest might be The God Delusion, actually, but not even that could really break a friendship—although I might not want to rely on that person’s judgement in factual matters.

    Speaking of the God Delusion: I just read Sagan’s The Varieties of Scientific Experience, edited by his wife, Ann Druyan, and a collection of the Gifford Lectures Sagan gave in Glasgow in 1985. Not only does he talk about the “God Hypothesis”, in just the way that Dawkins does, but he also calls it a “delusion”. Don’t anybody tell Chris Mooney. ;>

  5. I am currently reading The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, by David Quammen. Fascinating, and every once in a while a great laugh.

    1. Yes, one of my all-time favorite non-fiction. Combines good science with very entertaining personal observation/travelogue – two of my favorite genres.

  6. For me this book is ‘A Sand County Almanac’ by Aldo Leopold. It’s beautifully written, thought provoking, and as relevant, or perhaps more relevant, today as it was when written over 50 years ago. It inspired me to become and evolutionary ecologist. It is a series of short pieces broken into 3 main parts: A Sand County Almanac, Sketches Here and There, and The Upshot.

    The first section builds a case for the interconnectedness of nature and the importance of understanding ecology. But rather than arguing the point he demonstrates it through explanation and experiential description:

    “A meadow mouse, startled by my approach, darts damply across the skunk track. Why is he abroad in the daylight? Probably because he feels grieved about the thaw. Today his maze of secret tunnels, laboriously chewed through the matted grass under the snow, are tunnels no more, but only paths exposed to public view and ridicule. Indeed the thawing sun has mocked the basic premises of the microtine economic system!

    The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized. To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.

    A rough-legged hawk comes sailing over the meadow ahead. Now he stops, hovers like a kingfisher, and then drops like a feathered bomb into the march. He does not rise again, so I am sure he has caught, and is now eating, some worried mouse engineer who could not wait until night to inspect the damage to his well-ordered world.

    The rough-leg has no opinion why grass grows, but he is well aware that snows melts in order that hawks may again catch mice. He came down out of the Arctic in the hope of thaws, for to him a thaw means freedom from want and fear.”

    In the second section he places humans within rather than outside of ecology:

    “It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.

    Above all we should, in the century since Darwin, have come to know that man, while captain of the adventuring ship, is hardly the sole object of its quest, and that his prior assumptions to this effect arose from the simple necessity of whistling in the dark.

    These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.”

    Finally, he presents his solution, the land ethic. Many would argue that it is the foundation for modern conservation biology:

    “society is like a hypochondriac—so obsessed with its own economic health that it has lost the capacity to remain healthy”

    “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

    “A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these ‘resources,’ but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”

    I could go on and on … but I think I already have. If you don’t love this book you can still be my friend though 🙂

      1. Oh! I was given Sand County years ago in college biology–*loved* it! I pressed it on my mother and sister, too. And thanked the professor for assigning it, wondering parenthetically why more books like that aren’t assigned (or at least enthusiastically recommended) in science classes.

        My book would be, though, “O Ye Jigs and Juleps” by Virginia Cary Hudson. It’s a slim collection of innocently irrevrent essays written by a 10-year-old girl around the turn of the century. It was my grandfather’s favorite book, and my mother cannot to this day read it out loud without falling out of her chair. I pick it up every once in a while just to laugh thinking of my mother trying to read it out loud. “The Presbyterians do too believe in procrastination, and their pledge card prove it!”
        And fixing Miss Fanny a mint julip, “…and Miss Fanny said, ‘How much whiskey is in here?’ and I said, ‘One jigger,’ and Miss Fanny says, she says, ‘That’s for faith. Where’s the hope and Charity? Go back and put in two more.’ And I ran back to the potato patch and told Mrs. Harris what Miss Fanny said, and Mrs. Harris says, ‘Give her a Corinthian julip if she wants one and by the time I get in the house whe won’t know whether I am wearing a sunbonnet or a crown.’ And that’s what Mrs. Harris said, and I did.”
        There’s a youthful, quizical kind of unstated skepticism throughout that’s utterly charming. Enjoy, if you can find it:)

  7. Currently reading Hitch 22 & enjoying every bit of it.
    Also a bio of Charles Kingsford Smith (Australian aviation pioneer.
    The loss of a book caused considerable angst when my beloved wife lent my copy of Schindler’s Ark to a colleague & we never got it back – that I hate & not returning books could easily end a friendship.
    For a different read try The Book Thief by MArkus Tuszak, well written & with a very different perspective on “life”.
    gillt @3, hope you enjoy the Dark Tower both my son & I did although I thought the ending was weak & spoilt the tale.

  8. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul is one of my all time favorite books. I haven’t liked any of Naipaul’s other books but this one is heartbreaking.

    1. Yes. ‘A House’ is like one of those great 19th century social novels. A microcosmic portrait of a society, in this case the domestic life of Trinidadian Hindus. Hilarious and sad.
      I recommend just about anything by Naipaul. His best are ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’, ‘A Bend in the River’, and ‘The Enigma of Arrival’. I like his travelogues as well.

  9. I recommend the wonderful and deeply sad ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ by the English potter Edmund de Waal. It is a true story about his immediate ancestors, the fabulously rich Ephrussi family, their rise to eminence, the splendid eccentrics among them, and their destruction with so many other of the Jewish families of Europe. About the only thing left at the end was a collection of netsuke (from which that hare with amber eyes comes)which was bought in the late 19th-century by Charles Ephrussi who lived in Paris and who was the model for Proust’s Swann. The collection eventually comes to Edmund. The writing is excellent: sharp, intelligent, and resolutely un-nostalgic. And the range of the story is remarkable, like that of the Ephrussi family: Odessa, Paris, Vienna, London, Tunbridge Wells and Tokyo; I live in the last city, and de Waal’s descriptions of it are extraordinarily good. This is an absolutely first-rate book.

  10. “You could consider it an “intellectual” novel, since it deals in part with ideas, but it’s not in the least turgid or didactic.”

    Oh, Barbery’s novel is didactic all right. Just clever about it. And that’s partly the reason of its success: it takes “big ideas” and turns them into chewable, easily digested bites. Why not… Though from how you describe it, I think part of the charm comes from the translation (the French original is quite bland, you might caracterize it as “easy reading”, as there is “easy listening”). Or maybe from the exoticism of the Parisian characters and setting.

  11. Ian Kershaw “Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-1941”

    Often when one comes across a book like this, the tendency rest your eyes on it for 3 seconds and move
    on is irresistible. Publishers pump out mountains of WWII histories: stories of battles, general summaries,
    biographies of generals etc. We look at them on the table at the airport bookstore and think: Do we really
    need another Churchill hagiography?? Most of them end up getting overprinted and remaindered, sitting
    in gleaming stacks at Half-Price Books or Powell’s. At first glance “Fateful Choices” seems to be just such a
    book. A red and black cover (aren’t all books on WWII, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union red and black?),
    with 6 photos: Churchill, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, and Gen. Hideki. Yawn.

    But at the bottom, the author’s name catches your eye: Ian Kershaw. Anyone familiar with Kershaw’s
    work knows they are in good hands with Kershaw. Practically no other writer can tease out the complex
    currents of social, ideological, and personal modes of causation that shaped world events in the first half
    of the twentieth century as well as Kershaw. One senses that he has read and understood all sides of every
    argument, large and small, about the conflict. He has picked up every theory, held it up to the light, tried
    to sense what its made of, and worked out the hidden assumptions. His books “Hitler, the Germans, and
    the Final Solution”, and “The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich” shed a bright clarifying
    light on some of the toughest questions about Nazism: How central was Hitler to the causation of fo the
    Holocaust and could it have happened without him? Was the Holocaust inevitable once the war began?
    Is the totalitarian concept that supposedly encapsulates both fascism/Nazism and Stalinism a coherent one?
    What was the difference between the public’s conception of the Fuhrer and its reality, and what role did that
    difference have in the operation of Nazism?

    One could easly go on. In this book, Kershaw looks at the ten most momentous decisions made by the leaders
    involved in the conflict at the start of the war, trying as hard as possible to look at the decision from their
    perspective, from behind their desks. He lays out what these men knew (or thought they knew) about the
    political and military situation, what they were arguing with their collegues, what their intelligence was
    telling them etc.. The result is that the reader feels like they are right there, making these huge decisions a
    long with Churchill, Hilter, and Stalin. And while Kershaw leaves room for alternate possibilities in the short term,
    he also shows the reader the inescapable constraints these men were under: not all avenues were open to them.

    “Fateful Choices” is another must read from Kershaw, who shows us once again how history is made, and how
    it makes itself.

  12. I just finished enjoying the hell out of Pynchon’s latest (and probably most accessible, along with Vineland), Inherent Vice. Pothead noir as the 60s devolve into the 70s in an LA beach town.

    1. I need to purchase this. I, too, wish I could have met him. He’s just one of those people; the world is sorely worse off without him in it. He’s always #1 on any of those hypothetical lists (…if you could have dinner with anyone in the past, present, future…). Have you read ‘Last Chance to See’?

      1. ‘Last Chance To See’ was actually the first Adams book I ever read. I only got around to reading the first Hitchhiker book about a week ago.

        He would be a great addition to a fantasy dinner party (you’ve accidentally triggered my nerdy list-making instinct…I’ll be mentally revising my dinner guest list all day now…)

  13. Mid-way through Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. It’s great. Next on my list is Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity (only because I’m catching his debate with Peter Singer at Socrates in the City in NYC this Monday night).

    1. Great book (‘Sophie’s World’)! Philosophy often tires me out and leaves me feeling confused and unsure of myself. This book was so easily absorbed and quite the page turner!

  14. Some years ago I read Simon Garfield’s “Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World” and I still recommend it highly and frequently. The story of William Perkin, who was hoping to synthesize an antimalarial in the 1850’s, and wound up with the first coal-tar dye, which completely changed the complexion of society. The industry it spawned affected the balance of world power. The book concludes with DNA sequencing dyes.

    1. ‘Biology of Plagues’ by Susan Scott and Christopher J. Duncan is a fascinating read about the Black Death and other diseases and shows conclusively that the Black Death was not bubuonic plague at all but something else. This is one of those books which clears up a problem that’s been in your mind for ages unasked but causing unnoticed disquiet. The story of the Black Death as the bubonic plague never made sense but you just accept it because that’s what those who know these things say. Then you find out how flimsy the evidence is for this idea and that it’s not right and suddenly you can relax that bit of your brain with a big sigh.

      They have written a less data filled version of this book and no doubt cheaper, but I really enjoyed all the graphs and tables of deaths.

  15. You need the Hedgehog Song:

    Old Noah was mucking the Ark out one day when
    he heard a great shriek from the neighboring stall.
    Said he to poor Ham, who was hugging his loins,
    “Ah, the hedgehog, my boy, can’t be buggered at all.”

    Chorus (repeat after each verse): [p. 87]

    Roll them all over and turn them around,
    The hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    * The sheep is a classic, as well you may find,
    the llama’s all right if he isn’t too tall,
    the donkey’s a danger for standing behind,
    but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    You may pounce on the cat as he walks by his lone, [Kipling]
    the mole has a hole into which you can crawl,
    you must blindfold the basilisk or turn into stone,
    but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    The sow is a darling, so slick and so tight,
    to cuddle and kiss as you lie next the wall,
    but she don’t chew the cud, so you’d better not bite,
    and the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    * The squirrel requires the climbing of trees,
    which puts you at risk of a slip and a fall.
    The dog’s man’s best friend if you don’t mind the fleas,
    but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    * You can do it with a frog in a puddle or pool,
    though you might catch a cold in your whatchamacall-
    it, or with a giraffe if you stand on a stool, [p.48]
    but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    The rhino is often… reluctant… to flirt;
    the termite’s a challenge because he’s so small
    you might wash him away with your very first squirt;
    but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    * The bonobo monkey —
    Will someone please tell the Librarian I’m not talking about him?
    He’s in the last verse. — Thank you!
    The bonobo monkey is willing to hump:
    he’ll do all his friends, both the large and the small,
    and he’ll do it to you if you show him your rump,
    but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    * The humans are out, if you value your life:
    it’s incest, my son, since we’re relatives all…
    unless you’d make love to your very own wife!
    But the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    * I don’t recommend that you tackle the skunk.
    I did once myself, I’m ashamed to recall;
    I must have been EXtr’ordinARily drunk!
    But the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    The kangaroo’s pocket can carry your tool
    though her kick may propel you clean over the wall.
    The platypus lurks in the muck of his pool
    but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    The camel is likely to spit in your face,
    but don’t take it bad, for it ain’t personAL:
    he simply detests the entire human race,
    and the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    As a friend to the children, commend me the Yak; [H. Belloc]
    he’s perfect to start them on when they are small,
    for they cannot slip off of his very broad back,
    but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    You can take a wild ride on a wild catamount
    if your ears can stand up to his wild caterwaul.
    You can poke your own fist, but that really don’t count,
    and the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    Take care when you lift up the elephant’s tail
    or beware of the fate that else may befall:
    if you pick the wrong end you could wind up impaled!
    But the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    To futter the bat you must take to the air.
    She’ll flutter her wings and go into a stall
    and pitch you off into God-only-knows-where,
    but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    * (Verse 17) [p.51]
    The billygoat’s habits, though pungent and weird,
    you’ve got to accept if it’s him that you’d ball:
    he don’t use cologne, he just cums in his beard,
    and the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    The guinea pig’s timid, and brainless to boot,
    he’s worse than no use in a ruckus or brawl,
    but you can’t pass him up ’cause he’s so bloody cute!
    But the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

    * (Last verse) [deliberately]
    You can bugger a whale if you’re willing to swim
    or an ORanguTANG if you hang from a limb;
    or make time with a snail if you slow… to… a… crawl…, [p.315]
    … but the hedgehog can never be buggered at all!

    Final chorus

  16. I loved the book too, Jerry. I read it after hearing it discussed on the Diane Rehm show. Several people commenting on there had read it in the original French and the English translation. The fact that they said the translation was great, made me want to read it more.

    Of course the story became so sad (won’t spoil it here), I had become so attached to the characters.

    Highly recommend it.

    I’m reading “The God Delusion” right now. Hadn’t read it before. It’s excellent.
    (will read all the comments here now, to see what others read)

  17. A couple of great New Zealand novels:

    “The 10 pm question” by Kate de Goldi. It’s in the young adults category, because it’s about a teenager, but grown ups will love it (I’m 60).

    “When the Earth turns silver” by Alison Wong. Set in Wellington almost a hundred years ago, it’s the love story of a European woman and a Chinese man. Beautifully and poetically written, a wonderful romance with themes of racism and militarism running through.

    Oh, and anything by Maurice Gee.

  18. I’m working full-time and studying part-time, so I’m not getting enough time to read at the moment.

    Though, I am reading Hitch-22, which I think is OK. Some things I’m just not that interested in, and others I am, so it’s a bit 50/50.

    Friendship breaker: The closest thing I could think of is John Stuart Mill on Liberty. But that’s more of philosophical difference, than a book difference.

  19. Hi…been lurking here a while. First time poster! Just finished Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash’. All I can say is that is one cool dude. Reading Ursula K Leguin’s ‘World’s of Exile and Illusion’. I can’t say anything about her that hasn’t already been said. The thing I appreciate most about her works is that she assumes her readers are intelligent and capable of piecing stories together with little clues of history or politics here and there. She does not waste words when she knows her readers can fill in the blanks..instead every word she writes paints rich, complicated characters and worlds that fully draw you in.

  20. “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri took me through the immigration and assimilation of an Indian family to life in America. She brings the family alive with details that make a picture in the mind; yet it is the story of all immigration and assimilation, too.

  21. Currently reading: “Shitstorm” by Lenore Taylor and David Uren. The title comes from the phrase included in a press conference given by Australia’s (now ex) Prime Minister. The book describes how Australia got through the Global Financial Collapse in 2007/2008 in better shape than any other developed nation.

    Just finished: “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis. An excellent book on the GFC, and those that foresaw it coming and profited by it.

    Highly recommended: “Reinventing the Bazaar: A Natural History of Markets” by John McMillan. This is an excellent book on markets and economics. It is not a thick and heavy book, and is an excellent introduction into how markets work, why they are a solution to many problems, and when they do not work. It is also an excellent book on why communism (planned economies) fail.

  22. I’m reading The Voyage of the Beagle, and I’m slowly but surely falling in love with the young Darwin! His curiosity, his energy, compassion, his analytical mindset, his humble gratitude, his language – and his admiration for good horsemanship 😉 makes Darwin, and his book swoonworthy. Really a good read.

  23. I’m actually re-reading the “Selfish Gene” right now. I had to go back through it after reading Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics: or control and communication in the animal and the machine.” I have no formal biology training, but as a engineer/mathematician I find the discussion on evolutionary stable strategies and the parallels to engineered systems endlessly fascinating.

    A novel I’ve recently read and greatly liked is the “Gospel According to Jesus Christ” by Jose Saramago. One reviewer described it as a version of the gospel written by an atheist.

  24. Maurice, by E.M. Forster, which I read in my early twenties. The movie by James Ivory is good (Ivory is a great admirer of Forster) but the book is a must-read.

    Les Fleurs du mal (the Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire. When you’re in a good mood. Or a bad. It works both ways.

    The Dwarf by Pär Lagerkvist (the story of a dwarf in the Renaissance Italy; the main character is devious, utterly lonely, both angry and desperate).

    Anything by Stephen Jay Gould, whose books helped me discover the theory of evolution and its history.

  25. I am still the only person I know about who has read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, but I recommend it to everybody. I’ve read it twice, and I revisit it when I’m in between other books. If a writer is going to use a dictionary’s worth of invented vocabulary, then the story had better be worth the effort, and oh man, it is worth the effort.

    (I used to be the only person I knew about who has read The Baroque Cycle, but I see it on this list and now I feel a little better.)

    1. I enjoyed Anathem as well, up until it suddenly turned into space fiction which disappointed a bit.

      Just finished Snow Crash which was a lot of fun – jaw-droppingly prescient for being published in 1992. Go Hiro!

      1. Loved Anathem! Glad to see it get some love on here. The whole space-time ruckus was a little bewildering at first, until I realized what was up. And I am a strict opponent to a multi-verse reality. Definitely a much better conclusion than Cryptnomicon, IMO.

  26. I’m a third of the way into China Miéville’s recent Hugo Award winning “The City & The City” (the second “The City” is written backwards.) Miéville is not just an sf writer, he’s a literary master who meeds to be read alongside Kafka and the Magical Realists. I can’t really explain the book in this space (look for reviews online) so you can hate it and still be my friend, but ignore it and you’ll miss an experience of something impossibly special.

  27. The World of Jeeves by PG Wodehouse.
    The jacket blurb says “controlled lunacy” and it is exactly right.

    Just about anything by Jim Harrison, although the latest I’ve read is The Summer He Didn’t Die. Sentences that take your breath away. Harrison is the Faulkner of Michigan and the UP.

  28. First-time commenter, too.

    Novel recommendation:
    Christoph Ransmayr, Die letzte Welt

    (Read it in the early 90s, in German. There is an English translation according to Amazon.) A riff on the banning of Ovid to the far reaches of the Empire, set in a semblance of 30s fascism. The novel describes the metamorphosis of the town Ovid was banned to into some state of nature.

  29. Thank you, Professor Coyne, for the recommendation. Michael Dirda’s review seals the deal…I’ll fit it in to my ‘to be read this Fall’ pile, along with Jonathan Franzen’s latest.

    Reading right now:

    Julian Young’s Nietzsche biography, which is thus far excellent.

    Middlemarch. Can’t believe I’m just now getting around to this one, but better late than never.

  30. I’ll add my recommendation to The Big Short by Michael Lewis. It’s in the running for the best book I’ve ever read, in any subject.

    But, on a side note, I usually find fiction-leaning discussions like these rather depressing. I haven’t enjoyed a work of fiction since about 2002. I can’t work out if that’s because I’m getting old and cynical (I’m 28), or because I’ve simply finished reading the very tiny subset of novels I’m likely to find interesting. Every time Jerry (or anyone else) gives a summary of a new novel, I just can’t stop myself thinking, “Pretentious crap, seen it all before.”


  31. I just recently re-read Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels, which I consider a true classic of travel writing. I consider it a “bucket list” book.

    I’m currently reading his story of repeating his journey at age 69, Dreaming of Jupiter, which so far is excellent.

    I also just recently finished rereading The Bounty Trilogy by Nordhoff and Hall. This is probably my favorite (group of) historical novels. The first two are gripping. I will try the Raj Quartet.

    I can also highly recommend Sebastian Junger’s (of The Perfect Storm fame) most recent book War, which gives the most intimate look at the Afghanistan war of anything I’ve read. Rory Stewart’s The Places Between is also excellent on Afghanistan.

  32. I also want to put in a very good word for an unusual novel that I love: Any Human Heart by William Boyd. A novel told through the fictional journals of the main character. Superbly written. Some of the sentences and paragraphs are near-perfect distillations of time and/or place.

  33. The book I’m reading now is the sequel/prequel to one of my favorite books: “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruis Zafon. It was one of those books that I read all in one night, finishing at 5am and was so wired from the book that I couldn’t have slept if I wanted to. I’m enjoying the second book a lot.

    And since I can never confine myself to one book, I’m also in the middle of “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin. It’s a pretty quick read and fairly short. I can’t watch horror movies, but sometimes I crave a horror novel.

    1. Oops! Sorry, the second book is called “The Angel’s Game” and features some of the characters from the first book, but in smaller side roles.

  34. My 3 all time favorite novels are: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry- I didn’t want it to end; Independent People by Halldor Laxness and Don Quixote by Cervantes.

  35. bsk @41:

    I read few novels and really enjoy fewer still. I read loads of non-fiction.

    Please try the following novels (if you haven’t read them already):

    Perfume by Susskind
    Any Human Heart by Boyd
    The Summer of Katya by Trevanian
    On the Black Hill by Chatwin
    For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemmingway
    Girl With a Pearl Earring by Chevalier
    The Red Strangers by Huxley

    I think they are all older than 10 years; but if you haven’t read them …

  36. I just picked this up from the library. It is early going but good so far. As both a reading fan and rugby player and fan I thought I’d mention that it sounds an awful lot like she based her Somu (NZ rugby) player off of the real life player Jonah Lomu. Size pace and position all roughly match up and are an unusual combination. And when you watch him run it is indeed a thing of beauty. People’s reactions to his play were described spot on. He’s an interesting story himself. One of the best to ever play the game but mid career required a kidney transplant. Came back to play professionally but never quite got back to his full form although the comeback itself is impressive.

    Here’s a link to the pre-game war dance, the Haka.


    I’ve seen Samoa’s own version (the Siva Tau) live at a game with great seats and it made every hair on my body stand on end. I think it’s a great rugby tradition among the Pacific Island nations.

    Here’s Jonah for anyone interested


    “Football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; rugby a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen” Don’t know the source but I like it.

  37. For the previous exercise, I recommended George Stewart’s “Names on the Land.” Jerry put it on his list. I am curious if he or any others read it.
    Now may I recommend “The Long Walk”, by Slavomir Rawicz. A Polish officer at the outbreak of WWII, he was jailed as a spy by the Russians, starved, tried, and sent to Siberia, a thousand miles north of Lake Baikal, a few hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. He and a handful of others escaped, and walked 5000 miles south across Russia, China, Mongolia (Gobi Desert), Tibet, Nepal, and into
    British held India. Not all made it. It is a most amazing story of courage and human dignity.

  38. Pompous. I think this book was written for no one but author. A bunch of pretty sentences does not a novel make. I will now accept my flaming.

  39. Aw, this was an extremely good post. Finding
    the time and actual effort to create a really good article… but
    what can I say… I hesitate a lot and never manage to get anything done.

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