Category Archives: My Favorite Books

What the hexagrams said

It took me a long time to come around to appreciating the virtues of Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of the classic Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Since the film has gone from being critically plastered to critically overpraised, those real minor virtues tend to be overshadowed by imaginary major ones. I still think it’s a great setting for a movie rather than a great movie in itself, but it has this much going for it —  Scott’s adaptation left out so much of what made PKD’s novel great that a more faithful adaptation could be filmed and hardly anyone would be the wiser.

So I’m not entirely dismayed to hear that Ridley Scott is overseeing production of a mini-series based on another seminal PKD novel, The Man in the High Castle, but I’m not all that happy, either. It’s one of the all-time champs of the alternative history subgenre, set in a world where the Third Reich and Imperial Japan have divided most of the world between them, and America has been balkanized into a collection of puppet states and ineffectual enclaves. (This Wikipedia entry has a pretty spiffy map laying out the power blocs in this alternate universe.) It’s a cerebral book, with multiple plotlines converging in a search for the author of an alternate-history novel that upends PKD’s scenario, scandalizing readers (and enraging the Reich) by showing a world where the Axis powers were defeated.

That search, which includes at least one undercover assassin, could be used to make The Man in the High Castle into a straight-ahead action flick, much as Blade Runner turned its source novel into a hunt-the-androids video game, which would be a shame. On the other hand, I’d love to see who gets cast as Juliana Frink, one of the few truly engaging female characters PKD ever set to paper.

One element likely to get lost in the wash is the presence of the I Ching as a guide to life. At the novel’s close (which is too open-ended to qualify as a true ending) Juliana consults the I Ching and learns that she is living in a false reality — as is everyone else in the story. We won’t need to consult the oracle to see if Scott’s Castle is equally false.

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That sudden recognition

As I write this, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun has fallen to the second tier of the New York Times bestseller list, having debuted on the tenth rung of the list only the week before. That’s a bit of a comedown, considering that the previous manuscript exhumed from Tolkien’s papers, The Children of Hurin, debuted at the top of the list in May 2007. It’s also a pity, because The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun is far and away the more valuable of the two books.

That’s because The Children of Hurin, cobbled together from notes and previously published excerpts, merely showed Tolkien imitating one of the sources of the inspiration that led to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, on the other hand, shows the old philologist grappling directly with one of those sources, on its own terms, and if read in that spirit it could start other readers on the same scholarly quest that animated Tolkien’s life and work. 

The sources of Tolkien’s inspiration are well known: echoes from the Elder Edda, Old English verse (notably Beowulf), and the Icelandic sagas run through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. For me, the biggest selling point for The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun was the chance to read one of the old don’s own lectures on the Elder Edda, and get a glimpse of the scholarly passion that drove him:

It remains true, all the same, that even robbed of their peculiar and excellent form, and their own tongue whose shape and peculiarities are intimately connected with the atmosphere and ideas of the poems themselves, they have a power: moving many even in school or pre-school days in filtered forms of translation and childish adaptation to a desire for more acquaintance.

There remains too the impact of the first hearing of these things after the preliminary struggle with Old Norse is over and one first reads an Eddaic poem getting enough of the sense to go on with. Few who have been through this process can have missed the sudden recognition that they had unawares met something of tremendous force, something that in parts (for it has various parts) is still endowed with an almost demonic energy, in spite of the truin of its form. The feeling of this impact is one of the greatest gifts that reading of the Elder Edda gives. If not felt early in the the process it is unlikely to be captured by years of scholarly thraldom; once felt it can never be buried by mountains or molehills of research, and sustains long and weary labour.

This is unlike Old English, whose surviving fragments (Beowulf especially) — such at any rate has been my experience — only reveal their mastery and excellence slowly and long after the first labour with the tongue and the first acquaintance with the verse are over. There is truth in this generalization. It must not be pressed. Detailed study will enhance one’s feeling for the Elder Edda, of course. Old English verse has an attraction in places that is immediate. But Old English verse does not attempt to hit you in the eye. To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet.

I experienced my own faint echo of that “sudden recognition” years ago when I had to translate a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “The House of Asterion,” for a Spanish class. After weeks and months of See-Diego-Run grammar exercises, to have a genuinely great story come into focus under my pen was a rare thrill — something akin to having a statue I’d walked past for weeks suddenly turn its head and call out to me.

I envy anyone who has that experience on a regular basis, though I don’t envy anyone the amount of labor it takes to get there.

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Dylan destinations

I heard about this pretty late, but I’m seriously considering a trip to Brooklyn tomorrow night to see Clinton Heylin, who will be signing copies of his new book Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-1973 at Spoonbill & Sugartown, an indie bookstore in Williamsburg. Heylin’s Behind the Shades is the best and most comprehensive biography of His Bobness now on the shelves, and Bob Dylan: The Recording Sessions is the kind of thorough spadework future scholars will appreciate as they study one of the landmark American musicians.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to seeing Michael Gray give his talk “Bob Dylan & The Poetry of the Blues” this Friday in Nyack, N.Y.  Quite a music-oriented week coming up.

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So it appears Joel and Ethan Coen are getting set to film a remake of True Grit, using the scriptwriter they worked with on No Country for Old Men. I consider this qualified good news.

Charles Portis’ 1968 novel is a terrific read, and all the good I can say about the 1969 film version is that it isn’t nearly as dire as the sequel. John Wayne was the exact wrong choice to play Rooster Cogburn — wrong artistically, wrong chemically, wrong geometrically, mathematically, geologically and just about any other way you can imagine — but those were the days when any movie with a horse in it got saddled with Duke. Yeah it got him his Oscar, and whoop de doo for that. It also spawned a sequel that gave him a chance to one-up Humphrey Bogart by redoing The African Queen in the Wild West, and by the time Duke and Katharine Hepburn got done chewing the scenery I’m surprised there was a single tree left standing in the Oregon Cascades. (There was also a made-for-TV second sequel, imaginatively titled True Grit: A Further Adventure, which nobody remembers. With good reason.)

So while I’m glad to hear the Coens are going to go back to Portis and come up with something much closer to the novel, I’m reserving judgment. The novel gets its zing from the first-person narration of Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl out to avenge the murder of her father, and her relentlessly blunt, Bible-quoting manner can be played for too-easy laughs if done as a voice-over. Easy laughs, unfortunately, are the Coens’ stock in trade, along with comic rustics. I’d hate to see True Grit turned into a more violent version of O Brother, Where Art Thou, but that may very well be what we get. On the other hand, I could go along with John Goodman as Rooster Cogburn. Tommy Lee Jones as La Boeuf? John Turturro as Tom Chaney? Maybe this could work after all.

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My favorite books, part two

About a week ago I published the first installment of my annotated list of Steven’s Favorite Books, compiled at the behest of poet and editor Nick DiGiovanni. That’s “favorite” books, not “best” or “most important,” but the books that I return to most often, whether for information or for pleasure, or for both.

There are at least two more installment’s worth left to go. You’ll find the master list at the end of the first installment. And so . . .

FLASH FOR FREEDOM! George MacDonald Fraser

I’m a sucker for good historical fiction, and Fraser’s books are some of the best. Harry Flashman, lifted whole from Tom Brown’s School Days and given a commission in Queen Victoria’s army, is one of the great antiheroes in literature: bluff and hearty looking but a coward at heart; a backstabbing poltroon who wins military honors and a heroic reputation through blind luck and chance; an endlessly cynical joker who runs from fights but is ready to acknowledge real heroism when he sees it. Through deft plotting, Fraser has thus far managed to tangle Flashman in just about every one of Queen Victoria’s “little wars” and then some: the first Afghan campaign, the revolutions of 1848, the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebelllion in China, the India Mutiny, and the Crimean War. Though he has dropped plenty of hints that Flashman was involved in the Civil War on both sides, Fraser has yet to publish that installment of the saga, though Flashman and the Angel of the Lord puts Harry in the middle of the standoff at Harper’s Ferry. Unfortunately, Angel of the Lord and the last two Flashman titles have been pretty weak tea — if Fraser has taken too many trips to the well, maybe we’d all be better off if the Civil War novel goes unrealized.

Angel of the Lord was the third book to bring Flashman to America. For my money, the first two American books — Flash for Freedom! and Flashman and the Redskins — are the twin peaks of the series. Flash for Freedom! gets off to a relatively slow start for the series: a cameo appearance by the Chartist Rebellion, followed by a card game with Disraeli that turns into an incident of near-manslaughter. Ready to skip the country until things cool down, Flashman is gulled into shipping out on one of his father-in-law’s merchant ships: only after the ship sets sail does Flashman realize he’s signed aboard a slave ship bound for the Guinea coast. What follows is a tour de force: a panoramic view of the mid-nineteenth century slave trade that takes a clear-eyed look at every side, from the African potentates who eagerly sold off their brethren, to the merchants whose finery cannot quite conceal the moral degeneracy that comes with the buying and selling of human beings. Marooned in New Orleans with stolen identity papers, Flashman assumes various roles at every level of society in the pre-bellum South as a slave owner, a slave overseer, an operative for the Underground Railroad and finally as a slave himself, sold into bondage by a plantation owner Flashman has cuckolded. The sequence in which Flashman escapes and flees north with a fellow captive is bravura action, full of twists and close calls, climaxing with a chase across a frozen river and a stand-down between some brutal slave-catchers and a young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

The book also offers some of Fraser’s most finely drawn characters, the most inspired being John Charity Spring, a homicidal Latin scholar and defrocked Oxford don who captains the slave ship Balliol College and crops up as a recurring nemesis in other Flashman books. The Flashman books are often referred to as comic novels, but Flash for Freedom! goes well beyond laughs with the character Cassy, a slave woman who burns with hatred for all whites but finds an unlikely savior in the gutless, womanizing Flashman. Magnificent stuff.


The second American novel in the Flashman series picks up right where Flash for Freedom left off, with Flashman once more on the lam, signing on as a bodyguard for a New Orleans brothel that’s relocating to San Francisco via wagon train. The narrative carries Flashman through the thick of the Indian wars, with circumstances once again landing him in various roles: bounty hunter, Indian fighter, Apache captive, and lover of an Apache chief’s daughter. The second half brings Flashman back to the West years later, and by various twists and turns puts him alongside George Armstrong Custer just as he takes it into his head to go after a bunch of Indians at the Little Bighorn. Every once in a while Frader senses that Flashman is about to become too loveable a rogue, a problem he remedies by making Flashman do something bone-jellying callous and brutal. That’s what happens here, and it paves the way for a dynamite plot twist that neatly yanks the rug out from under the reader’s expectations.


Ernest Hemingway said a great many foolish things, none more ridiculous than: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” What utter balls. Modern American literature was created by Twain’s contemporary, Ambrose Bierce, a San Francisco newspaperman whose penchant for viciously funny satire earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, the young Bierce served on the Union side during the Civil War and fought in some of its most appalling battles, namely Shiloh and Kennesaw Mountain. The experiences he endured during the war cast long shadows through his life and work. Those shadows gather here in “Chickamauga” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the former a hallucinatory vignette that reads like something from Goya’s Disasters of War; the latter a tale ending in a twist so brilliantly brutal that successive generations of writers have copped from it. (Check out the Sopranos episode in which Adrianna is murdered, and tell me the writers weren’t paying tribute.) Bierce scorned novels as overly padded stories; to prove his point, he made his short stories into marvels of compression and forceful writing, and his depictions of mind-altering twists of fate in the midst of battle (“One of the Missing”) could have been written last week. This collection also includes some of his horror stories, which pale in comparison with the war stories – after seeing what the little boy encounters in the woods in “Chickamauga,” a Lovecraftian trifle like “The Damned Thing” seems downright comforting. There are also a couple of “Parenticide Club” stories that showcase Bierce’s utterly pitch-black sense of humor. Bierce was a man of the nineteenth century, but his work forecast what was to come, and showed everyone how to write about it.


As I’ve written before, Bob Dylan stands with Duke Ellington and Aaron Copeland as a crucial figure in any appreciation of twentieth century American music, and this is the most up to date, comprehensive and critically informed biography of him that money can buy. Alone of all Dylan’s chroniclers, Heylin has come to grips not only with Dylan’s huge body of officially recorded works, but also with the immense corpus of bootleg recordings that allows one to trace virtually every phase of Dylan’s artistic development, from those first strummed songs in Bonnie Beecher’s apartment to the last outtakes from Time Out of Mind. And for all his appreciation of Dylan’s artistry, Heylin is no dazzled fanboy: he can be brutally dismissive of sacred cows like Dylan’s early ‘90s return to folk music, or the blowhard arena shows from his 1974 “comeback” tour. Too much writing about Dylan veers between the embarrassingly worshipful gushing of Paul Williams and the deep-dish arcana of Greil Marcus, whose musings are often as puzzling, and much less rewarding, than some of the trickier verses on Highway 61 Revisited. This book stands with Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man (and his recent Bob Dylan Encyclopedia) as one of the very few essential books written about a most essential American artist. Of all the books I own, this may be the one I return to most often, for its depth of detail, its critical shrewdness and its flavorful style.


I came to this book for “By Cozzens Possessed,” the long, witheringly funny essay that effectively ended the career of pretentious middlebrow writer James Gould Cozzens – to paraphrase Martin Amis, when Macdonald reviewed Cozzens, he stayed reviewed. But I kept it because Macdonald, like all the best critics, brought so much wit, learning, and observation to his task that the essay grew beyond one bad writer to become a merry hunting trip to bag and tag all the blowhard authors who are hailed as saviors of literature one week and forgotten beyond all recall the next. There is a fine appreciation of James Joyce, an equally fine evisceration of Ernest Hemingway, and a long polemic about the purpose of dictionaries that needs to be dealt with by anyone who sides with “descriptive” over the “proscriptive” approach. For all his political radicalism, Macdonald was culturally rather conservative – a “rebel in defense of tradition,” as his biographer called him. He appreciated the innovations of a James Joyce all the more because he also continued to treasure the more earthbound predecessors that Joyce soared past. The wit and economy of his writing are so bracing that the subjects of his essays: like George Orwell, whom he writes about here, Macdonald mastered the art of artlessness, and it makes these pieces irresistably readable.   

My favorite books, part one

Last week my friend Nick DiGiovanni called on various people to e-mail lists of their favorite books. My own list runs at the end of this post, which is the first installment of my series of explanations for why these books are the ones I love best in the world.

THE ASCENT OF MAN/Jacob Bronowski

Bronowski was more than a science writer — he was a philosopher, and his deeply humane, endlessly questing view of life has had (I like to think) more influence on my worldview than any other philosopher. This book and its accompanying miniseries (available on DVD through Ambrose Video) are a fine introduction to Bronowski’s wit and deep-seated decency. From here, I would recommend Science and Human Values as the next step.


In his work and his life, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a bridge between pagan Rome and its Christianized successor. Though the empire has been Christianized for about a century before his birth, Boethius harkened back to Plato and Aristotle, whose works he was still translating into Latin when his life was cut short. Though he was a formidable scholar and quite possibly the single most learned man in the Empire, Boethius took public service as a calling, and he threw himself into politics with great vigor — too much, it seems, since he found himself on the wrong side of a controversy and was sentenced to death in 524 CE by the Ostrogothic king Theoderic. Awaiting his fate in prison, Boethius produced this gorgeous, paradoxical meditation on the workings of fate and justice — a Christian work that avoids mentioning Christ and instead uses the workings of logic to support its arguments. I have yet to encounter a work of theology that has its intended impact on me, but I found (and find) Boethius’ view of evil as an absence rather than a generative force in its own right to be very powerful and clarifying. When I was covering crime and courts during my newspaper days, I sat in one a number of horrifying murder trials, and in every case the accused murderers did not show Satanic cunning along the lines of Hannibal Lecter, but rather damage begun by others in childhood and continued in later life, as though the victims wanted to justify and complete the terrible things that had been done to them. Their evil deeds had been formed by emptiness, an emptiness Boethius had seen and described even as it came to claim his life.


Not one of the officially approved Great Steinbeck Novels, but the one in which the California master found his voice after flailing around with Cup of Gold and To A God Unknown. It’s not even really a novel — more a collection of linked short stories set in the ironically named valley where Bert Monroe brings his family, hoping to break a lifelong streak of bad luck. As we see in each finely crafted story, Monroe doesn’t so much break his bad luck as spread it around, with consequences that range from benign and ironic to enraging and tragic.

CANNERY ROW/John Steinbeck

Steinbeck called this slim, effortlessly readable book a poisoned cream puff, and it takes a few readings to see what he meant: while many people are content to view the book as nothing more than a collection of vignettes about loveable rogues and scamps in a rough section of Monterey, there’s a great deal of toughness and flint-eyed observation at work here. There’s also a lovingly drawn portrait of Doc, a marine biologist closely modeled on Steinbeck’s close friend Ed Ricketts, who serves as the axis around which the novel’s events turn. At its simplest, the novel is a study of the difference betweena good party and a bad party. At its most complex, it presents a human community as intricate and fragile (and as beautiful and stunningly violent) as the tidal pool habitats where Doc searches for his specimens. It also has some 0f most glowingly beautiful passages Steinbeck ever wrote. The burghers of Monterey never forgave Steinbeck for this or Tortilla Flat, which chronicled the paisanos living in the hills above the town — they damned the books as celebrations of lowlifes, and they all but ran Steinbeck out of town on a rail when he tried to return with his second wife. Their descendants, of course, have since turned the Steinbeck connection into a small tourist industry. Cannery Row no longer exists in Monterey, but it will always exist in this book.


The title poem is Lowell’s tribute to “The Fighting Fifty-Fourth,” the black infantry unit that tried to storm Fort Wagner during the Civil War, and it remains my favorite poem decades after my first reading. The other poems are nothing to sneeze at, either.


My second favorite poem of all time, “The Thought-Fox,” uses vivid imagery drawn from nature to convey the mystery of literary creation. It is one of the standouts in the first collection published by one of the towering figures of twentieth-century verse.


Bradbury at his most concise, most evocative and — quite often — most frightening. Most of the stories are rewritten versions of tales from his first book, Dark Carnival (published by Arkham House, and now a collector’s item commanding prices in the thousands of dollars), but the after-the-fact polishing has done nothing to diminish the menace of “The Man Upstairs,” “The Next in Line” or “The Small Assassin.” The emphasis on the macabre gives this collection a unity lacking in, say, The Illustrated Man or The Golden Apples of the Sun, to say nothing of additional kick. With later Bradbury, the richly flavored style tends to overwhelm the finished product; here is where you’ll find him at his most accessible and compelling.


This book and George Orwell’s A Collection of Essays belong in the working library of anyone writing nonfiction. Like a great many Californians in the 1960s, Didion saw California in general (and Los Angeles in particular) as a tainted paradise overdue for some kind of annihilating judgment, and in the long title essay she tried to figure out the nature and the extent of the deserved punishment. It’s true that Didion sometimes mistakes her moods and fixations for reports from the Zeitgeist, but I love her gift for winding sharp judgments and observations into long, elaborately crafted sentences that lead the reader in unexpected directions. I also like her flinty streak: it makes “On Self Respect” a bracing read

JULIAN/Gore Vidal

Like Joan Didion, Vidal gets more attention for his bitingly witty and combative essays than his novels; unlike Joan Didion, Vidal has produced novels that are worth reading in their own right, and this is the best of them. The story of Julian, the Byzantine-era Roman emperor who tried to hold back the Christianization of the empire that began under Constantine, allows Vidal to display his formidable research skills while slashing away at contemporary pieties. The fact that Julian’s own attacks on the developing Christian church remain powerful to this day are part of the fun, and the ending turns out to be deeply moving — surprisingly so for a writer whose work tends to be a bit chilly.


All of Wilson’s strengths as a critic, essayist and historian are on display in this survey of the literature of the Civil War. He’s generous almost to a fault with Harriett Beecher Stowe, amusingly dismissive of Carl Sandburg’s attempts to embalm Abraham Lincoln in folksy pickle juice, sharp-eyed and to the point with Mary Chestnut, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. (Or is that Mark Twain?)

XICCARPH/Clark Ashton Smith

Smith was a young California poet, briefly part of Ambrose Bierce’s literary circle, who survived the Depression by writing baroquely imaginative fantasy and science fiction stories for the pulp magazines, notably Weird Tales, where he became the third part of the unlikely trimuvirate formed by H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Smith was the finest writer of the group: a stylist whose interests lay not in narrative (his plots ranged from rudimentary to nonexistent) but in evoking strange moods and environments. Smith wrote only poems and short stories, which have been republished in various configurations. This particular book is one of four issued by Ballantine Books in the early 1970s under its Adult Fantasy imprint, which was one of the touchstones of my youth. For a long span of my adolescence, simply looking at this paperback with its exotic cover painting (by Gervasio Gallardo, a mainstay of the series) was enough to transport me to strange and beautiful places.


Sorry, lit-snobs, but an appreciation for imaginative writing is a necessary part of any reading diet, and with the death of Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance inherited the title of great underappreciated American fantasy writer. Like Leiber and his stylistic precursor Clark Ashton Smith, Vance is an underappreciated American master overdue for discovery by the wider world; unlike them, he has achieved a measure of recognition and finanical success as a science fiction grandmaster. These stories are set on an Earth lost in perpetual twilight under a fading sun, where learning has become a blend of magic and science, and the shadowy forests teem with bizarre monsters — many of which use the same elegantly epigrammatic speech used by the human characters. Vance’s trick of evoking the far future by using antique and obsolete words like “deodand” was a big influence on Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun cycle is partly a tribute to Vance’s Dying Earth. “Real fantasy” may seem like a contradiction in terms, but at a time when bookstores are loaded with dreary fifth-generation imitators of J.R.R. Tolkien, this book is the real stuff.


The Dying Earth again, but this time our guide is a picaro named Cugel the Clever, a thief and vagabond whose attempt to burglarize a magician’s residence earns him a very long journey through a world of wonders and dangers. Each chapter is a fireworks display of imagination in which Cugel, who is not nearly as clever as he thinks, enters a situation and becomes an unwitting agent of moral redress, bringing unintended punishment on malefactors as well as unanticipated rewards to the virtuous — or, more often, the merely harmless. Imagine a world in which the grotesquerie of Aubrey Beardsley and Hieronymous Bosch are wedded to the elegant dialogue of a Restoration comedy and you’ll get an idea of the peculiar, heady flavor of Vance’s work.

To be continued.


Julian: Gore Vidal,

The Ascent of Man: Jacob Bronowski

The Consolation of Philosophy: Boethius

The Pastures of Heaven: John Steinbeck

Cannery Row: John Steinbeck

For the Union Dead: Robert Lowell

The October Country: Ray Bradbury

U.S.A.: John Dos Passos

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians: Ambrose Bierce

Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Joan Didion

The Dying Earth: Jack Vance

The Eyes of the Overworld: Jack Vance

History of My Life: Giacomo Casanova

Patriotic Gore: Edmund Wilson

A Canticle for Leibowitz: Walter Miller Jr.

The Hawk in the Rain: Ted Hughes

Xiccarph: Clark Ashton Smith

The Nehwon Books: Fritz Leiber

Life of Johnson: James Boswell

Lonesome Dove: Larry McMurtry

A Heart at Fire’s Center: Steven C. Smith

Behind the Shades Revisited: Clinton Heylin

The Power Broker: Robert Caro

Up In the Old Hotel: Joseph Mitchell

The Titus Novels: Mervyn Peake

Flash for Freedom! George Macdonald Fraser

Flashman and the Redskins: George Macdonald Fraser

A House for Mr. Biswas: V.S. Naipaul

Laxdaela Saga: Unknown

Egil’s Saga: Snorri Sturluson

This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm

The Children of Llyr: Evangeline Walton

In Patagonia: Bruce Chatwin

Against the American Grain: Dwight Macdonald

Prejudices: H.L. Mencken