Monday, May 18, 2009

Robert Roper

Robert Roper has won awards for his fiction and nonfiction alike. His book Fatal Mountaineer won the 2002 Boardman-Tasker Prize given by London’s Royal Geographical Society. His journalism appears in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, National Geographic, and other publications.

His latest book is Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War.

Roper teaches at Johns Hopkins.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished a two-year stint as a judge in a fiction prize competition, so most if not all of my discretionary reading time was taken up with reading all or part of roughly 80 nominated novels per year...oy vey. If you like novels do not ever accept such an assignment. Since this year's awards were announced about a month ago I've read nothing fictional, nothing at all. Maybe my novel appetite will return some day.

That said, a couple of novels from the last two years gave me a lot of pleasure. One is Finding Nouf, by Zoƫ Ferraris. It's a cleanly written, humanly rich nominal murder mystery set in contemporary Saudi Arabia. The author was married to a Saudi man some years ago and lived there and kept her eyes open. Imagine a modern-day Emily Bronte parachuted into the land of Wahabi restrictions on women's education and free movement. No kind of tract, the novel biopsies Saudi society with exquisite thoroughness and quietly presents an impossible love story...which becomes excitingly less impossible by book's end.

A second novel I enjoyed a great deal is Be Near Me, by the Irish writer Andrew O'Hagan. It's set in Glasgow. It tells the not quite tragic story of an aesthetic Catholic priest exiled to Glasgow's rougher purlieus; an intellectual as well as an aesthete, the priest in question exercises poor judgment in many directions but at the end seems to have achieved a kind of liberation.

Some friends urged me to read Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides. I had a hard time getting into it as I prefer more carefully sourced and academic historical writing, but after a while I was swept away by the sheer pleasure of having Kit Carson's extraordinary life dramatically presented in the context of a farseeing representation of the whole history of the American Southwest.

A dry but exceedingly solid history of George Washington as military leader, General George Washington, by Edward Lengel, has helped me assuage my need for nonfiction (after all those nominee novels). Before I read it I was pretty much ignorant of Revolutionary War history and very ignorant about Washington's career as soldier; now I am, for as long as I am able to remember the difference between the battles of Trenton and Princeton, marginally less ignorant.

Here's another compelling and well-researched American history I just read: Pictures at a Revolution, by Mark Harris. This book appeared on a number of best-books lists for 2008 but as far as I know won no awards; the problem probably is that it's a work of readable cultural history, and books of this nature are considered less weighty, perhaps. Harris writes well, and for this book he visited many film industry archives and somehow got to and interviewed all the principal players in his story who remain alive. His story is about the cultural change signaled by the movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967: "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," and..."Dr. Dolittle."

Recently I've also read Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara's superb first novel from 1934; among other things it does searingly well is to show the social reality of a moment in economic history very like our own, after a severe market crash (the one in '29) but before the sequelae had quite become clear. And I had great fun reading Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, the collected letters of Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, who were intensely close and also mutually irritating friends from 1940 into the 1960s.

I've just started Six Frigates, Ian W. Toll's magisterial history of the founding of the US Navy, which in passing is said to be a first rate history of the War of 1812, about which I (again) know very little, but am eager to learn something.
Read more about Roper's Now the Drum of War at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue