John Lesser is probably our most loyal customer, bar none; he’s been shopping here nonstop since Subterranean Books first opened back in October, 2000 (yes, we’re 12 years old now!). Here’s John in a convenient nutshell: opera buff; prodigious reader; nice guy — and, as you’ll see below, a highly cultured, extremely well-read man. We’ll let him take over and do the talking now…
What is your all-time favorite book?
A. Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil)
The first time that I read this massive work I spent almost a year at it.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Roberto Bolaño, Leonardo Sciascia, Thomas Bernhard, John Banville, Jose Saramago, Salman Rushdie, Nikki Ducornet and Angela Carter.
Interestingly, four of these authors I know only in translation. I wish that I could read Russian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese, Hungarian or Czech books in those languages.
What are you reading now?
I have just finished Bring Up The Bodies (Hilary Mantel), a worthy follow-up to Wolf Hall. [Our aside: Mantel just won her second Man Booker Prize, this time for Bring Up the Bodies.]
Do you keep the books you read?
Almost always. I don’t like to lend books, but I do recommend titles. When I moved to smaller quarters three years ago, I had to give up more than eight thousand books. I wish that I had them back, but I’ve already amassed two or three hundred new books and my shelves are bowing.
Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or cry, or one that teaches or distracts?
I love a good book that makes me react and paints a clear picture; happy or sad, maybe just beautifully written. Books are never distractions. They are time machines, mirrors, passports and cabinets of wonder.
So what was the last book that made you laugh, cry, or taught you something?
They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (Christopher Buckley)
The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)
Verdi’s Shakespeare (Garry Wills)
What books have you found disappointing or overrated?
Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) I was told that I would like it, but I didn’t like it at all.
Most bestselling current fiction leaves me hungry for a really good book. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown) was easily forgotten. I rarely, if ever, leave a book unfinished though I have occasionally had to force myself to reach the end.
What are your favorite story collections?
I really enjoyed St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (Karen Russell), Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri), The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God (Etgar Keret) and any bit of insanity from David Sedaris.
Do you tend to read more short fiction or novels?
I read both. I also read biography, history and everything from the Classics to Steam Punk. I tend to shy away from poetry and plays, but there are exceptions. I the last few months I’ve read biographies of Catherine the Great (Robert K. Massie), Cleopatra (Stacy Schiff), Caravaggio (Andrew Graham-Dixon) and Joan of Arc (Nancy Goldstone).
What author, living or dead, would you like to meet?
Who wouldn’t want to chit-chat with Shakespeare or Dante? I would like to trade obscenities with Rabelais and meet any author whose work(s) I have enjoyed. Having worked with several book festivals and attended author programs, I have had the opportunity to meet and speak briefly with many contemporary writers — most recently Jasper Fforde who was as entertaining as his books.
Which book do you plan to read next?
American Canopy (Eric Rutkow)
Do you avoid very long books in favor of a shorter, faster read?
No. I’ve happily worked through The Tale of Genji (Lady Murasaki Shikibu), The Book of Memories (Peter Nadas), Jerusalem: A Biography (Simon Sebag Montefiore), We, The Drowned (Carlton Jensen), 2666 (Roberto Bolaño), A Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil), and Le Ton Beau de Marot and Goedel, Escher, Bach (Douglas R. Hofstadter).
If someone asks you to recommend a book, what do you often suggest?
The Quickening Maze (Adam Foulds), Assassination Vacation (Sarah Vowell), In the Garden of the Beasts (Erik Larson), The Fountains of Neptune (Rikki Ducornet), or The Sea (John Banville).
Name a few books that you’ve read that aren’t widely known, but which were and remain favorites.
On Heroes and Tombs (Ernesto Sabato)
Bomarzo (Manuel Mujica-Lainez)
I am an extremely “visual” reader, seeing every moment of a book in my mind’s eye. The richer a writer’s imagery, the more engaged I become whether the subject be fiction, nonfiction, history, fantasy, humor, biography, diary or even reference.
I believe strongly in supporting independent bookstores and am fortunate that the staff of Subterranean Books, in particular, knows what I might like and will make recommendations. I have never bought a book through Amazon and I read an average of one book a week.
Set in Vienna on the eve of World War I, this great novel of ideas tells the story of Ulrich, ex-soldier and scientist, seducer and skeptic, who finds himself drafted into the grandiose plans for the 70th jubilee of the Emperor Franz Josef. This new translation--published in two elegant volumes--is the first to present Musil's complete text, including material that remained unpublished during his lifetime.
The sequel to Hilary Mantel's 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, Wolf Hall delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
In an attempt to gain congressional approval for a top-secret weapons system, Washington lobbyist "Bird" McIntyre teams up with sexy, outspoken neocon Angel Templeton to pit the American public against the Chinese. When Bird fails to uncover an authentic reason to slander the nation, he and Angel put the Washington media machine to work, spreading a rumor that the Chinese secret service is working to assassinate the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile in China, mild-mannered President Fa Mengyao and his devoted aide Gang are maneuvering desperately against sinister party hard-liners Minister Lo and General Han. Now Fa and Gang must convince the world that the People's Republic is not out to kill the Dalai Lama, while maintaining Fa's small margin of power in the increasingly militaristic environment of the party.
Madeline Miller's thrilling, profoundly moving, and utterly unique retelling of the legend of Achilles and the Trojan War. A tale of gods, kings, immortal fame, and the human heart, The Song of Achilles is a dazzling literary feat that brilliantly reimagines Homer's enduring masterwork, The Iliad. An action-packed adventure, an epic love story, a marvelously conceived and executed page-turner, Miller's monumental debut novel has already earned resounding acclaim from some of contemporary fiction's brightest lights--and fans of Mary Renault, Bernard Cornwell, Steven Pressfield, and Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series will delight in this unforgettable journey back to ancient Greece in the Age of Heroes.
In Verdi's Shakespeare, Pulitzer Prize winner and lifelong opera devotee Garry Wills explores the writing and staging of Verdi's three triumphant Shakespearian operas: Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff. An Italian composer who couldn't read a word of English but adored Shakespeare, Verdi devoted himself to operatic productions that authentically incorporated the playwright's texts. Wills delves into the fast-paced worlds of these men of the theater, focusing on the intense working relationships both Shakespeare and Verdi had with the performers and producers of their works. We see Verdi study the Shakespearean dramaturgy as he obsessively corresponds with his chosen librettists, handpicks the singers he feels are best- suited to the roles, and coaches them intensely.
Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxanne Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening -- until a band of gunwielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different continents become compatriots, intimate friends, and lovers
In these ten glittering stories, debut author Karen Russell takes us to the ghostly and magical swamps of the Florida Everglades. Here wolf-like girls are reformed by nuns, a family makes their living wrestling alligators in a theme park, and little girls sail away on crab shells. Filled with stunning inventiveness and heart, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves introduces a radiant new writer.
Navigating between the Indian traditions they've inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri's elegant, touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of culture and generations. In "A Temporary Matter," published in The New Yorker, a young Indian-American couple faces the heartbreak of a stillborn birth while their Boston neighborhood copes with a nightly blackout. In the title story, an interpreter guides an American family through the India of their ancestors and hears an astonishing confession. Lahiri writes with deft cultural insight reminiscent of Anita Desai and a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant. She is an important and powerful new voice.
This fascinating and groundbreaking work tells the remarkable story of the relationship between Americans and their trees across the entire span of our nation’s history. Like many of us, historians have long been guilty of taking trees for granted. Yet the history of trees in America is no less remarkable than the history of the United States itself—from the majestic white pines of New England, which were coveted by the British Crown for use as masts in navy warships, to the orange groves of California, which lured settlers west. In fact, without the country’s vast forests and the hundreds of tree species they contained, there would have been no ships, docks, railroads, stockyards, wagons, barrels, furniture, newspapers, rifles, or firewood. No shingled villages or whaling vessels in New England. No New York City, Miami, or Chicago. No Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, or Daniel Boone. No Allied planes in World War I, and no suburban sprawl in the middle of the twentieth century. America—if indeed it existed—would be a very different place without its millions of acres of trees.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure German princess who became one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history. Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into empress of Russia by sheer determination. For thirty-four years, the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution. Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly brought to life. History offers few stories richer than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, an eternally fascinating woman is returned to life
Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first and poisoned the second; incest and assassination were family specialties. She had children by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most prominent Romans of the day. With Antony she would attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled both their ends. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Her supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order.
In a bravura performance, Andrew Graham-Dixon explores Caravaggio s staggering artistic achievements, delving into the original Italian sources to create a masterful profile of the mercurial painter. This New York Times and Washington Post Notable Book of the Year features more than eighty full-color reproductions of the artist s best paintings.
The untold story of the extraordinary queen who championed Joan of Arc. Politically astute, ambitious, and beautiful, Yolande of Aragon, queen of Sicily, was one of the most powerful women of the Middle Ages. Caught in the complex dynastic battle of the Hundred Years War, Yolande championed the dauphin's cause against the forces of England and Burgundy, drawing on her savvy, her statecraft, and her intimate network of spies. But the enemy seemed invincible. Just as French hopes dimmed, an astonishingly courageous young woman named Joan of Arc arrived from the farthest recesses of the kingdom, claiming she carried a divine message-a message that would change the course of history and ultimately lead to the coronation of Charles VII and the triumph of France.
First published in Hungary in 1986 after a five-year battle with censors, Péter Nádas's A Book of Memories is a modern classic, a multi-layered narrative that tells three parallel stories of love and betrayal. The first takes place in East Berlin in the 1970s and features an unnamed Hungarian writer ensnared in a love triangle with a young German and a famous aging actress. The second, composed by the writer, is the story of a late nineteenth century German aesthete whose experiences mirror his own. And the third voice is that of a friend from the writer's childhood, who brings his own unexpected bearing to the story. Compared by critics to Proust, Mann, and Joyce, this sensuous tour de force is "unquestionably a masterpiece" (The New Republic).
Jerusalem is the universal city, the capital of two peoples, the shrine of three faiths; it is the prize of empires, the site of Judgment Day and the battlefield of today’s clash of civilizations. From King David to the 21st century, from the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the Israel-Palestine conflict, this is the epic history of three thousand years of faith, slaughter, fanaticism, and coexistence. In this masterful narrative, Simon Sebag Montefiore brings the holy city to life, through the people who created and destroyed it—from Herod, Cleopatra and Nero to Churchill, Rasputin and Truman—and draws on the latest scholarship, his own family history, and a lifetime of study to show that the story of Jerusalem is truly the story of the world.
This international bestseller about generations of men who go to sea and the women and children they leave behind is a magnificent tale of love, war, and adventure. Cannibals, shrunken heads, prophetic dreams, forbidden passions, cowards, heroes, tragedies, and survival--this book is destined to take its place among the greatest seafaring literature.
Three academics on the trail of a reclusive German author; a New York reporter on his first Mexican assignment; a widowed philosopher; a police detective in love with an elusive older woman--these are among the searchers drawn to the border city of Santa Teresa, where over the course of a decade hundreds of women have disappeared.
Based on real events, The Quickening Maze won over UK critics and readers alike with its rapturous prose and vivid exploration of poetry and madness. Historically accurate yet brilliantly imagined, this is the debut publication of this elegant and riveting novel in the United States. In 1837, after years of struggling with alcoholism and depression, the great nature poet John Clare finds himself in High Beach- a mental institution located in Epping Forest on the outskirts of London. It is not long before another famed writer, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and grows entwined in the catastrophic schemes of the hospital's owner, the peculiar Dr. Matthew Allen, his lonely adolescent daughter, and a coterie of mysterious local characters. With lyrical grace, the cloistered world of High Beach and its residents are brought richly to life in this enchanting book.
Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other -- a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage.
Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the bestselling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power. The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
In this luminous new novel about love, loss, and the unpredictable power of memory, John Banville introduces us to Max Morden, a middle-aged Irishman who has gone back to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a child to cope with the recent loss of his wife. It is also a return to the place where he met the Graces, the well-heeled family with whom he experienced the strange suddenness of both love and death for the first time. What Max comes to understand about the past, and about its indelible effects on him, is at the center of this elegiac, gorgeously written novel — among the finest we have had from this masterful writer.