Michael Dirda’s Summer Reading List

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In a few weeks I will be taking a summer break for most of July and August. Naturally enough, I’ve put together a stack of books to wind down on during downtime when I’m not working on a major writing project that’s — sigh — at least three years overdue.

First, to honor its centenary, I’d like to re-read James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” which was published 100 years ago in 1922 and takes place entirely in a single day in Dublin in 1904, June 16. If you’ve ever been hesitant to tackle this modernist masterpiece, allow me to recommend Frank Delaney “Re: Joyce”, a podcast who analyzes sentence by sentence this richly layered text. Delaney, who was born in County Tipperary, had one of those wonderful Irish voices, coupled with a brilliant conversational manner, that make listening to him a complete joy. Alas, he died in 2017 when he had only explained the first third of the book.

Joyce, ‘Ulysses’ and obscenity viewed in page-turner style

I also hope to revisit another classic, the two-part “Chéri” (1920) and “La fin de Chéri” (1926) by Colette, now available in a polished new translation by Rachel Careau, which also provides a substantial introduction. I first encountered these mildly shocking novels – about a cute, self-absorbed boy and the older, worldly casserole who loves him – when I was teaching at a high school in Marseilles, but that was a long time ago, and my French has since grown rusty. So I’m looking forward to trying Careau’s English version, perhaps with the occasional peek at my older editions of the Livre de Poche.

A few years ago, Johns Hopkins University Press reissued, in paperback, a six-volume boxed set of “The Story of My Life” by Giacomo Casanova, translated by Willard R. Trask. Reading it turned out to be a revelation. While blocking (consensual) sexual encounters, the memoirs also chronicle one get-rich-quick scheme after another as this picaresque hoodlum dodges the law across much of 18th-century Europe, including Turkey, Russia and England. Surely no reader ever forgets Casanova’s escape, through a combination of ingenuity and daring, from the infamous Venetian prison known as the Leads. Yet there have always been questions about the veracity of this tireless scammer (pun multilingual). Fortunately, Leo Damrosch, author of superb books on Rousseau, Swift and the universe of Samuel Johnson, has just released “The Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova” (Yale). I am excited to begin.

James Grady’s latest thriller, “This Train” (Pegasus), is set almost entirely on Amtrak’s “Empire Builder” as it crosses the country from Seattle to Chicago. Having already leafed through the early chapters, I know that the passengers are a cross-section of American types – view an updated version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims – whose actions, often enigmatic and ominous, are relayed in moving fast, syncopated prose, every sentence like a stab. Of course, it’s a universally recognized truth that thrillers set on trains can only be great, and this one involves conspiracy and possible terrorism. Needless to say, any fan of Grady’s “Condor” adventures will be eager to board “This Train.”

Why isn’t Guy Gavriel Kay better known to the general public? In seductive prose, Kay’s historical fantasies transport the reader to a Renaissance Europe that never quite existed and rival the works of George RR Martin and Robin Hobb for sheer excitement. After thoroughly enjoying Kay’s “Under Heaven,” a complex novel of political chicanery in 8th century China, I now look forward to “All the Seas of the World” (Berkley). Right now, I just know the plot involves two assassins in a half-Italian, half-Arab Mediterranean world of intrigue and romance, but then who needs to know more? Prior reviews have used the word “masterpiece”.

Ever since I read Gigi Pandian’s “The Locked Room Library” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine – it’s been shortlisted for multiple awards – I’ve been looking forward to trying out her longer fiction. Released last spring, Pandian’s “Under Lock & Skeleton Key” (Minotaur) kicks off a series centered around the Secret Staircase Construction Company, which specializes in creating hidden compartments, pull-out bookcases and more for its customers’ homes. In this initial thriller, a young illusionist named Tempest Raj discovers the body of someone she once knew inside a wall that’s supposedly been sealed for over a century. Pandian claims to be a disciple of John Dickson Carr, so I can’t wait to see how his new book stacks up against the master’s closed-chamber classics.

Finding Wisdom in the Crazy Scribbles of Charles Baudelaire

Let me mention at least two more appealing summer getaways. JH Gelernter’s “Captain Grey’s Gambit” (Norton), set in the Napoleonic era, is British secret agent Richard Grey’s second outing. In this one, an international chess tournament provides the context – and that alone pretty much sells the book for me. As a fan of David Stacton’s jaw-dropping ‘The Judges of the Secret Court’, I was drawn to Paul Witcover’s ‘Lincolnstein’ (PS Publishing), which also focuses on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. But in this fantastic reimagining, Lincoln is “saved” thanks to radical surgical techniques like those employed by a certain Victor Frankenstein. It turns out, however, that the president’s new brain has been excised from the body of Jim, the longtime black friend of a Union intelligence officer named Finn, who is soon ordered to hunt down and destroy the escaped monster. With such iconic characters, how could a fantasy novel be more American, especially when it also tackles themes of race, inequality, and love?

Every summer reading list needs at least one “rediscovery”. Some time ago I wrote about “Living Alone”, Stella Benson’s strange and almost surreal 1919 novel about magic and witchcraft. Today, Recovered Books republished Benson’s ‘Pull Devil, Pull Baker’, irresistibly described as ‘the weirdest book you’ll ever read’. He claims to be reminiscent of an aging Russian con man, who speaks in broken, oddly spelled English. But is this self-proclaimed “Don Juan these days” real? It’s hard to say, but I suspect that’s part of the fun.

Michael Dird reviews books for Style every Thursday.


A previous version of this article incorrectly read “Ulysses” was published on June 16, 1922. It was published in February 1922. This article has been corrected.

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