August 07, 2006



A House For Mr. Biswas is great. You'd never guess from its emotional generosity that Naipaul is such a bastard in real life.


Thanks for posting that. At least I've read some of them, so not so much a broken estate as one in need of further work!


Great list! Some of my favorites are one there; others I'd like to read. Tristram Shandy is one of the best.


Nice to see Boell's Katherina Blum there. It's really an amazing little book that packs a huge emotional wallop. Guess I need to find out who Henry Green is...

Michael O'D

Hate to spoil the party, but I recall that Wood gave a very strong review of Ian McEwan's Saturday in the New Republic.


Not spoiling anything, Michael. This isn't a list of every book Wood's reviewing positively. (That would include Brick Lane, and Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses, among others.) It's more a list of books he appears, over time, to have given particular importance to, books that are clearly some kind of touchstone for him. They constitute "essential reading" ...

Rogério Casanova

I would also add The Stories of J. F. Powers, described by Wood as containing "stories surely among the finest written by an American. And probably Bohumil Hrabal's Too Loud A Solitude, a novel he raves about as often as possible. And rightly so.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."