What books are on your night stand?
I just finished Elaine Pagels’s “Why Religion?” and replaced it with “The Sullivanians,” by Alexander Stille. I’ve started “Mornings in Jenin,” by Susan Abulhawa. I’m waiting to begin A.J. Liebling’s collection of World War II writings. Some books on my night stand I’ve read long ago but pick them up to get a taste of what they meant to me. Two in that category are “Moby-Dick” and “Sophie’s Choice.” Three or four others at the bottom have rooted in place.
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William L. Shirer. It had been weighing down a shelf (over 1,200 pages) for years, but I was in a gloomy mood about our politics and thought it might help me understand the historical parallels. Shirer was on the ground as Nazi power reached its heights, then he covered the war that followed. It is an unsettling, shocking book, but a thrilling piece of reporting.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
“The Last Hurrah,” by Edwin O’Connor. I was writing a novel about politics and this is one of the great ones. My novel is set in Texas, and O’Connor’s in New England, but the precision of detail made his Irish Catholic city immediately believable and wonderful fun.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Books are creatures of their time. I often look back on a book I thought was wonderful and inspiring and found it to be maudlin and flowery or have some other defect of character I overlooked. It could be that literary fashions have changed or I’ve gotten older, and of course both are true. But I’m struck by the fact that so many writers I grew up loving (Walker Percy, Günter Grass, Saul Bellow) have been plowed under while an elect few (Hemingway, Didion) manage to stay current.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I’m surprised so few people read Liebling, whose book “The Earl of Louisiana” — about Earl Long, the governor and Huey’s younger brother — was among the ones that inspired me to set my sights on The New Yorker. He’s a great reporter but he also has a wicked eye for detail. I just love that book.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Ayad Akhtar, David Chase, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jesse Armstrong, Ian McEwan, Jane Smiley.
What writers are especially good on Texas?
Texas — especially Austin — has become a real literary hub. I’m guessing Austin has more working writers than any community outside of Brooklyn. We’re creating the literature of the state, which was awfully thin before Larry McMurtry made a case for it. When I moved to Austin in 1980, the only novel set in Texas people talked about was “The Gay Place,” by Billy Lee) Brammer. The dean of living Texas writers is Stephen Harrigan, with his novel “The Gates of the Alamo” and his authoritative history of Texas, “Big Wonderful Thing.”
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
A few years ago three of my friends and I decided to read “The Denial of Death,” by Ernest Becker. It was too intimidating to tackle alone. We were all grappling with mortality. It wasn’t a book club and we never read another book together, but that experience of meeting once a week in a beer garden to talk over our fears and the meaning of our lives was a bracing and bonding experience.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
My wife read me a passage from “What an Owl Knows,” by Jennifer Ackerman. The flat faces of certain owls, like the barn owl, act as a giant external ear — like a satellite dish — with the feathers directing the sound into the ear. Fascinating.
What book would you recommend for America’s current political moment?
I’ve just started the galley for “Gods, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America,” by Bruce Hoffman and Jacob Ware, which provides an incisive look at the rise of extremism on the right. It’s a chilling tale.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Anyone who counted Nora Ephron a friend would probably call her a “dear friend.” She loved to entertain and was a famous cook, so I’d set the party in her apartment on East 79th Street. I’d be curious to recruit Samuel Johnson, just to determine if he’s as clever as Boswell made him or just overbearing. I love Ben Hecht’s memoir, “A Child of the Century,” and he was crucial to some of Hollywood’s greatest movies — “The Front Page,” “Notorious,” “Scarface.” Saul Bellow noted, “His manners are not always nice, but then nice manners do not always make interesting autobiographies.” The same could be said for dinner guests.
What do you plan to read next?
I think I’ll start “The Sullivanians.” It looks like fun.
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