Critical Mass

What NBCC Award Winner Gary Giddins is Looking Forward to Reading This Year

By Gary Giddins

We asked Gary Giddins, NBCC award winner for criticism,whose latest book is “Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books,” what was on his “to read” list:

As I don’t get many catalogs or PW, my sense of what’s coming out is largely dependent on word-of-mouth or announcements by friends who have finally completed works I’ve been fearful of asking about (and vice versa). Here are five that are scheduled for the Spring and Fall that I anxiously await.

1. “Laura Warholic” by Alexander Theroux, the good Theroux, the high-minded and difficult but irreverent, funny, and meticulous Theroux, whose novels are characterized by sexual and other obsessions, inspired character names, minutely detailed almost tactile descriptions, and a language of his own invention–words that are in no dictionary and yet are magically self-\-explanatory. This is Theroux’s first novel in nearly 20 years, and it is being published by Fantagraphics, the comics company for which he wrote monographs about Al Capp and Edward Gorey. This one concerns a sex columnist and promises to vivisect several popular and unpopular cultures.

2. “The House That George Built” by Wilfrid Sheed, the great comic novelist whose Max Jamison should be an honorary member of the NBCC, along with his creator. Sheed is also a devoted connoisseur of great songwriters, including George Gershwin, whose building involves such co-architects and tenants as Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, and Frank Loesser. For seigniorial judgment, there is Alec Wilder; for wit, romance, and inspired digression there is only Bill Sheed, whose first book in way too long this is.

3. “Ralph Ellison” by Arnold Rampersad, the biographer of Jackie Robinson and Langston Hughes. What writer can resist a 672-page documentation of another writer who published only one novel, a few stories and excerpts, and a great many essays? Where did the days go? “Ralph rolled a white sheet into his typewriter and hunkered over the keys, his fingers drumming upon them like an idling motor. Then he remembered: He had promised himself to read the complete 'Arabian Nights,' master the art of French cooking, build a new hutch for the living room, and re-alphabetize his books before writing another word.” I’ve promised myself not to write until I read this biography.

4. “The War: An Intimate History” by Geoffrey C. Ward, the historian and biographer [and NBCC award winner] who helped reinvent the documentary film in his incredibly prolific and successful work with Ken Burns. The books he publishes in synergetic union with Burns's films are often sold as companions to the TV events, but readers know that the books have an eloquence and detail of their own. Many of those who argued with the historical limitations imposed on “Jazz,” the movie, found a more comprehensive vision in “Jazz,” the book; it takes nothing away from films on Mark Twain or Jack Johnson to note that critical prose, unencumbered by the formalities of narration, can find wider avenues to explore. This project, a retelling of World War II through first-person accounts, promises an anthology of long overlooked testimony.

5. “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, the Richard Pevear – Larissa Volokhonsky way. I've tried every other translation; this time I'm actually going to finish the thing.