Michael Dirda, a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post, received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, On Conan Doyle, received a 2012 Edgar Award for best critical/biographical work of the year.
 Dirda graduated with Highest Honors in English from Oberlin College and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell University. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the online Barnes & Noble Review, and several other periodicals, as well as a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher. His new book, ­Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books, will be out next summer.

The Cool and Funny Words of Frank B.

Richard Ford, Paris, 2013
Apart from the seemingly silly title, Richard Ford’s new collection of four long stories about Frank Bascombe is pure pleasure. In fact, even that punning phrase “Let Me Be Frank With You” can be grudgingly justified since each story soon evolves into an intense two-person conversation: after a period of …

Pirates!

The pirate Mary Read, nineteenth-century print

What we admire in pirates—at least our fictional pirates—is that they so enjoy their villainy. They’re not sly or covert or subtle. Everything about them is over-the-top, histrionic: they glory in their infamy. While most of us drag ourselves through the daily dullness of our lives, they swagger, they pirouette, and, in the case of Captain Hook, even dance a tarantella. Like the trailblazer and the gunslinger, the pirate represents a New World ideal of freedom—a proud renegade living by his wits and his daring.

The Comédie Humaine of Joyce Carol Oates

At 667 pages instead of 666, The Accursed is obviously one page too long. Joyce Carol Oates’s extravaganza of demons, vampires, doppelgangers, seduction, possession, murder, and terrible family secrets has been called, by one who should know (Stephen King), “the world’s finest postmodern Gothic novel.” In its pages the devil—or …

A Stylized Sherlock

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson in Sherlock, now on PBS

While Sherlock continues to be exceptionally entertaining, I can’t help but wonder if it has grown a little too self-aware and too reliant on punning riffs for its titles, plots, and in-jokes. Even “The Giant Rat of Sumatra”—the most tantalizing of those untold cases for which the world is not yet prepared—is repurposed in this episode. Every element in “The Empty Hearse” feels a bit overstylized, artificial, almost going beyond the tongue-in-cheek. At regular intervals, too, the action actually pauses so that the camera can linger on the Byronically handsome Cumberbatch, brooding Batman-like over the city of London.

Funny, But Serious Too

Nicholson Baker, South Berwick, Maine, 2008
While Nicholson Baker may have started out as a somewhat lighthearted literary microscopist, genially teasing out the overlooked yet fetching particularities of the world around us, he’s come a long way since The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990). Over the years he’s increasingly assumed a far more iconoclastic and …

‘The Glory of Certain Moments in Life’

John Masters is now an almost forgotten novelist, though there was a time when Bhowani Junction and Nightrunners of Bengal might be glimpsed on the paperback racks of any drugstore. Masters had been an officer in the British army in Burma during World War II, though he seldom spoke of …

Not So Elementary, Watson

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes and the House of Fear, 1945
In the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows—the sequel to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes—the actors Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law completed their transformation of the great detective and Dr. Watson into Victorian action heroes (with just a touch of “bromance” to their relationship). The two movies (with a …

The Art of Revealing the Wreckage

Richard Ford at his house in East Boothbay, Maine, 2006
Wilkie Collins, the master plotter of Victorian fiction, famously attributed his literary success to the old music hall adage “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait.” In Canada—his first novel since The Lay of the Land (2006)—Richard Ford emphasizes the third element of that snappy precept. While Canada …

One of America’s Best

Drawing by Edward Gorey
Ambrose Bierce (1842–1913) is arguably the finest not-quite-first-rate writer in nineteenth-century American literature. Civil War veteran, contrarian journalist, master of the short story, muckraker, epigrammatist, and versifier, he is today most widely known for that word hoard of cynical definitions, The Devil’s Dictionary, and for a handful of shockingly cruel …

Sherlock Lives!

Jude Law as Watson and Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes

It’s been a particularly busy season for admirers of the world’s first and greatest consulting detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. The BBC Sherlock series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, as Holmes and Watson, brilliantly translates the stories into the present. while in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the sequel to the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law continue their transformation of the Victorian duo into gritty, steampunk action heroes. And then there is the annual meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars, that mysterious literary and dining club, whose members believe that Sherlock Holmes actually lived; his friend Dr. John H. Watson recorded actual historical events; and Arthur Conan Doyle merely served as Watson’s literary agent.

The Road to the Tower

Michael Escoffery: Looking Ahead, 2001. Illustration (c) 2011 Michael Escoffery/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
With the possible exception of Joyce Carol Oates, there is no busier or more prolific woman of letters in twenty-first-century America than Francine Prose. During the past decade or so she’s brought out a study of Anne Frank, a short life of Caravaggio, a guide to “reading like a writer,” …

White and Black Banville

Chekhov used to say that one had to be a god to distinguish between success and failure. While John Banville has won Britain’s major literary awards—the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Doctor Copernicus in 1976 and the Guardian Fiction Prize for Kepler in 1981, as well as …

Wake Up and Dream

The statue of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, in Straus Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where the narrator of André Aciman’s new novel pauses every night to think about his elusive friend Clara
Eight White Nights certainly possesses what one might call the courage of its aesthetics. André Aciman is an award-winning novelist (Call Me by Your Name), a memoirist of distinction (Out of Egypt), and an essayist known for his lush, evocative prose. He spent his early childhood in Alexandria, Egypt, before …

Wake Up and Dream

Richard Powers’s tenth novel may be his breeziest. This is welcome news for readers who have hitherto shied away from this formidable writer, so often dubbed a brainiac and polymath, a Thomas Mann of the Internet-genome era. To enjoy Generosity, you don’t need to have double-majored in physics and philosophy, …

Messing About with ‘The Wind in the Willows’

Kenneth Grahame (1859–1932)—who nearly called his most famous book The Wind in the Reeds —led one of those multiple lives so beloved of late Victorians: secretary of the Bank of England, contributor to the decadent Yellow Book, gently ironic celebrant of childhood in The Golden Age (1895) and Dream Days …

This Woman Is Dangerous

Patricia Highsmith at her house in Aurigeno, Switzerland, April 1984; photograph by Gérard Rondeau from his ‘One Hundred Portraits of Famous Authors and Artists,’ a recent exhibition at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York City
“The essential American soul,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in a celebrated description, “is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Of course, he was talking about Natty Bumppo and similar rough-and-tumble frontier spirits. By contrast, the amoral Tom Ripley—novelist Patricia Highsmith’s most famous character—is easygoing, devoted to his wife and friends, epicurean, …

A Family Worth Knowing

Jayne Anne Phillips, Boston, 1987
Any good reader certainly tries, in Henry James’s phrase, to be one on whom nothing is lost. We constantly adjust our expectations, not seeking to find in Proust the terseness of Hemingway, or in Joyce the headlong action of Alexandre Dumas. But it’s impossible to wholly put aside our genders, …

Spellbound

Interrupt all you like. We’re involved in a complicated story here, and not everything is quite what it seems to be. —Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium Over the past twenty-five years, Paul Auster has established one of the most distinctive niches in contemporary literature. As a Washington Post critic …

The Treasure Hunter

Memoirs are inherently wistful, but Larry McMurtry’s reminiscences of his life with books—not as a novelist but as a reader, book scout, and bookstore owner—are especially valedictory. Nearly every page sounds a note of farewell, of stoic, weary resignation, of time running out. While McMurtry’s voice remains modest, low-key, and …

An Epic of the Everglades

What becomes a legend most? Shadow Country—a nine-hundred-page recension of Peter Matthiessen’s linked novels Killing Mr. Watson (1990), Lost Man’s River (1997), and Bone by Bone (1999)—is quietly subtitled “A New Rendering of the Watson Legend.” That last word is carefully chosen, for Edgar J. Watson (1855–1910) is, like Davy …

The Wand of the Enchanter

Joyce Carol Oates still bothers people—in all kinds of ways. For more than forty-five years she has been steadily producing novels, short stories, poems, essays, plays. Between the beginning of 2000 and the end of 2005 she published nineteen books. She has written over seven hundred short stories, more than …

The Pleasures of Casanova

In the popular imagination the Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) is, above all, a smooth operator, the archetypal “man who loved women”—even if no one today could possibly believe such a sweet talker. Or could they? Whether Casanova really did all the things he is known for is a question …

The Way We Live Now

On January 16, 2007—the morning I planned to start reading Jonathan Raban’s new novel, Surveillance—The Washington Post carried a front-page article under the series headline “A Day in Our Digital Lives.” The reporter, Ellen Nakashima, opened her innocent-seeming story this way: “The tracking of Kitty Bernard begins shortly after she …

Dante: The Supreme Realist

Erich Auerbach (1892–1957) is best known for his magisterial, and majestic, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a book written in Turkey, where the German Jewish scholar had taken refuge from the Nazis, and published in German in 1946. This volume of connected essays opens by contrasting the …