Tag Archives: Ward Just

Norman Mailer’s Summer Reading List

27 May
Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

Norman Mailer @ Grant Park Bandshell, Chicago, 1968 Democratic Convention (photo: Robert Birnbaum)

I have no doubt come late to the party—the beach/ summer reading lists having been proffered by the usual experts on beach/summer reading. I am not versed in this genre (though I can recall reading Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and Foster Wallace’s magnum opus at a beach in Rincon Puerto Rico).Late, but not empty handed. Here’s a list (scroll to the bottom of this article if the name of the list confuses you):

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t See -Anthony Doerr

The Light We Can’t SeeAnthony Doerr (Scribner)

Excellent narrative, riveting characters and the use of WWII Europe and Nazi depredations are not cliched.

Everything I Never Told You by  Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never told You -Celeste Ng(Penguin Press)

Ng’s debut novel about a teenager’s death and its reverberations in the family and community is nimbly told (no small feat with such a weighty subject.

The Man Who  Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The Man Who Loved Dogs-Leonardo Padura(FSG)

Trotsky, his assassin, The Spanish Civil War, Stalin and the Moscow show trials, an aging Cuban writer, two wolfhounds— its a far flung story (times and places) written with Carribbean alacrity.Don’t believe me? Here’s Ann Louise Bardach take:

A global epic set mostly in Havana, Barcelona, Moscow and Mexico City, Padura’s novel is grounded in a trifecta of storylines: We have the grim saga of Trotsky’s 11-year flight from Stalin; the recruitment and creation of an assassin in the form of Catalonian communist Ramón Mercader; and the marginalization of Iván Cárdenas Maturell, a Cuban novelist who learns early in his career the hazards of writing in his homeland.

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return by Elizabeth De Waal

The Exile’s Return-Elizabeth De Waal (Picador)

Adam Kirsch’s paean to Ms De Waal should move you. Or not:

…appearing now, as a historical document, it gains an additional interest, as Elisabeth de Waal’s imaginative response to her own exile…This is not, perhaps, a new story, but in The Exiles Return it is told with sharpness and authenticity.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July Creek– Smith Henderson (Ecco)

I am partial to American novels set outside urban cultures and with a minimum of consumer activities. Like this one, set in the Fly over zone.

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair by Olen Steinhauer

The Cairo Affair- Olen Steinhauer (St Martin’s

As sure-handed as Le Carre reporting on the activities of spooks and various secret police. A world normally Byzantine in its alliances and
fluidity of loyalties, this plot set in Cairo seems especially volatile

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women's Prisons-  edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons- edited by Robin Levi and Ayalet Waldman

Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons (Voice of Witness)by Ayelet Waldman , Robin Levi (Editor)

In case you were charmed into seeing incarceration as a vacation by the Netflix series Orange is the New Black here’s a corrective. Or Christina Rathbone’s A World Apart Women,Prison and the World Behind Bars

They Don't Kill You Because They're Hungry, They Kill You Because They're Full    by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins

They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full by Mark Bibbins (Copper Canyon)

Fishermen on Sea of Galilee

A citizen said, Every action
born out of pure spontaneity
is correct. It’s possible
he said corrupt but I was
eavesdropping. Correction:
minding my business: he was
performing, saying, also,
to his fellow citizens, I know
you agree with me on this.
Look, it’s autumn in our
hairlines and some smear
on the pavement’s been run
over so many times we can’t
tell whether or not it started
out as an animal.
My heaven is populated
with conures, llamas,
and adolescent bears
but is otherwise
fairly quiet. I’m done
looking for approbation
from people for whom I have
no respect and would respect
less if I met them.
Was this the sea they parted.
Understatement, so rarely
biblical: there is no quill pen
half as sinister as the lone
piece of penne in a dish
of farfalle. Today we rock
anonymity and tomorrow find
further evidence of same
dying in the comment fields.
Wake me when you can
tell me whether every taxi
must engage in a dialogue
with all previous taxis,
when you do something
impossible, when you leave
the party, when you take
my worst advice. This is,
friends, this was the sea.

Midnight  in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (Random House)

Since I discovered Furst I have continued to read his regularly published and dependably entertaining and instructive war time “thrillers” I confess that was a brief period when I wasn’t entertained or instructed but the probability is high that was a shift in my attention or something even more subjective. But his latest opus, I can report is up to (my) snuff. Paris,1938 and the Spanish Civil War goings-on make for a great setting. And that infamous place where the Bulgarian waiter is shot is per Furst’s practice, cleverly insinuated into the plot.

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning- Greg Iiles

Natchez Burning– Greg Iiles (William Morrow)

A densely plotted post racial novel set in Natchez—that’s in Mississippi for all you Yankees that is thick on Civil Rights Movement era history as well lots of things you didn’t know about Natchez. Frankly I thought it was about 200 pages too long (800 pages). Reportedly, this is the first volume of a trilogy

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl by Robert Stone

Death of The Black Haired Girl– Robert Stone (houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Robert Stone is the gold standard of American fiction. That’s it.

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik

The Last Date by Laurent Seksik (Pushkin Press)

Writer Stefan Zweig has garnered lots of attention recently not the least because of Wes Anderson’s film Grand Hotel which in turn reportedly owes something to The Impossible Exile by George Prochnick (Other Press). I like this novel about Zweig’s last few months of life very much

A Permanent Member of The  Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member of The Family by Russell Banks

A Permanent Member go there Family by Russell Banks (Ecco)

Russell Banks is also the gold standard of American Fiction.

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves- Nick Turse

Kill Anything that Moves– Nick Turse (Picador)

Sorry to saddle this book under the rubric of Important book but if you are in doubt about whether the perpetrators of the Indochinese Debacle were/are war criminals a few chapters of Turse’s exhaustively researched
account should shake up your belief in American moral superiority.

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams  by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR

The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee JR (Little Brown)

See my chat with Ben Bradlee

Euphoria   by  Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic)

Author Alice Greenway expiates

Euphoria is a love story set against the scramble by anthropologists in 1930s New Guinea to record or map the traditions and beliefs of societies coming apart under the brutal onslaught of miners, traders, missionaries and colonialists. Lily King writes with astonishing insight and authority about a number of New Guinea tribes and particularly about their distinct gender relations. At the same time, she delves into the intellectual flights and passions of three anthropologists – as complex, rivalrous and brutal as any of the cultures they study. Euphoria is a brilliantly written book and entirely fascinating from start to finish. The character of Nell Stone, slight, wracked with fever and insect bites, with a slight limp from a fall in the jungle and large cuscus-like eyes, capable of joy and huge intellect, is extraordinary.

 American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just

American Romantic by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Ward Just is a dependable novelist who chronicles both remote and familiar pockets of American Life, in this case the life of an American foreign service officer who’s brief tryst with a German nurse in Vietnam seems to haunt him through his years of world wide diplomatic postings to his pleasant but solitary retirement in France

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything  by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich

Living With A Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve)

Who doesn’t love Barbara Ehrenreich‘s smart and compassionate views on the world? This,Living with a Wild God, would be her most personal book and reaches into an area that many people who spend time thinking, think many hours about. To quote one review

The questions in the world may be infinite, but perhaps the answers are few. And however we define that mystery, there’s no escaping our essential obligation to it, for it may, as Ehrenreich writes, “be seeking us out.”

“When I am asked what’s on my summer reading list… I read the all year long” Norman Mailer

R.I.P. Dr. Shep Nuland: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

7 Mar
Sherwin Nuland circa 2003(photo: Robert Birnbaum

Sherwin Nuland circa 2003(photo: Robert Birnbaum

Dr. Sherwin (Shep) Nuland ,author of “How We Die,” which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1994 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction in 1995, died this week. I had a emotionally fraught conversation with Nuland (@Identitytheory.com) in 2003 about his book Lost In America: A Journey with My Father. which told of his father’s very troubled life. Here from that chat:

RB: There is the old saw that everyone has at least one book within them.

SN: I think it’s true. Whenever people ask me, “Should I do this?” Yeah do it, do it. You have no way of knowing how wonderful this might be for you, for a reader, whatever. Another reason I say I am not a writer, when I die there is going to be an obituary in the Times and there is going to be a picture. I won a prize. I noticed that National Book Award people get their pictures there when they die.

RB: (laughs)

SN: Well, I am a guy who has been fortunate to have been so sick that he has had to spend a very long time in accessing his unconscious mind, in trying to free up all of the entanglements to get to what he really thinks. And somehow in doing that, I have been enabled to just write spontaneously.

SN: The headline will say “Author of How We Die and/orLost in America.” You know what I want the headline to say? (long pause) I need a moment for this. I want it to say something about the fact that this man spent thirty five years of his life…taking care…of sick people the best way he knew how. That’s what I want it to say. (long pause, while SN struggles to control his emotions) Ridiculous. Uh, because that’s what I have done. That’s what my life has been about. I don’t want to be thought of as a writer. I want to be thought of as a doctor. Surgeon, yes, but a doctor. I know that it sounds self-exalting but a healer. Because that’s what I tried to be. Some of it, of course, comes from the story I tell in the book, about going to the clinic with my father and how awful that was —for everybody, not just for him.

You can find Nuland’s obituaries here and here.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo of Alexandria


Nuland once included the Philo of Alexandria quote in the title —”Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”, in a note to me.

Currently reading Amerian Romantic by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

What’s Old is New

30 Dec

As these things go, I found myself wondering why the eternally ridiculous ‘idea’ (for lack of a better word) of the pet rock was, back some years ago, commercially successful. I mean, people were not only amused but actually shelled money (a striking example of the worthlessness of money) for these absurdities. Some time ruminating on this 20th century moment led me to conclude, for the moment, that no good could come out of any answers I might settle on—isn’t that the way it is. To paraphrase Texas Ranger manager Ron Washington, “That’s the way thinking do.”

And so, on to richer contemplation.

Of the voluminous book deliveries I receive each day , each week, many of the titles are known to me in some aspect—author, subject, someone’s recommendation, something. Some are advance reading copies , some are the finished copies. Unsystematically and idiosyncratically I examine all of these books and many I sample in some way. Which brings me to the case of Ward Just.

Rodin’s Debuitante (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) Just’s 17th novel since 1970 will be published in the Spring of the new year. I picked up my newly received advance edition (ARC) and recalled, as I was being drawn in by Just’s masterful prose, that I have over the years enjoyed his novels. And further thinking about Ward Just put me in mind of the late, lamented Fredrick Busch of whom I was a devoted reader and with whom I had the pleasure of speaking with four or five times.

Busch, by any measure, was a complete literary person. He taught literature and writing at Colgate University for almost 40 years. He published a couple of dozen books, of which two handfuls were novels. He won awards and accolades and even had a best seller – Girls. For my part I saw Busch’s writing as something I could dependably pick up with confidence with which I would be satisfied — time well spent. I especially like one of Busch’s later novels North (Random House) which was a sequel to Girls and drew me in via the protagonist’s relationship with his black Labrador. A small, but mighty feature.

As it turns out Busch and Ward Just were friends. Which when I recalled that tidbit, put me to thinking that they were taxonomically the same kind of writer. Skillful, sure-handed story tellers who fabricated enthralling narratives with creditable, plausible characters. Not much trendy or flashy. In Just’s new opus, the story begins on the eve of the US entry into the Great War, in a small town (today it would be called suburb) north of Chicago and zig-zags to the magical haunts of the Hyde Park (southside) section of Chicago, home to that greatly underestimated institution, The University of Chicago.

The cast of characters (even the bit players are memorable) are headed by Tommy Odgen, plutocrat and sybarite (he is well regarded at the brothel he patronizes) and Lee Goodell, graduate of the boy’s school Odgen establishes and funds. Goodell ends up at the University of Chicago but he really wants to be a sculptor. So, in case you wondered, the book’s title’s reference to the great French sculptor is not a caprice.

In addition to forming engaging characters , Just’s other worthy accomplishment in this story is to understand and present the political and cultural codes (specific to) Chicago operated under. And so Chicago becomes a character — a pretty interesting one ( and I am not just saying that because its where I grew up)

Just ends Rodin’s Debutante:

Odgen Hall was a vanished civilization. Somewhere in the incinerated ruins were homely items from the kitchen and the dining hall and the transcripts of a thousand students and the remains of two thousand leather-bound books and deep in the ashes, Rodin’s beautiful debutante, the marble scorched but surely intact. Lee imagined her excavated years from now, sometime late in the next century, recognizably a bust from Rodin’s hand—and the story would end there…