June 2013 reading recap

One of the nice things about finishing the comprehensive exam process is that it is again possible to do some reading for fun. I have (sort of) been able to take advantage of this opportunity and again trying to keep a list of those books I’ve read with the idea that I will post a recap at the end of each month, including a brief blurb about each book. Magister Ludi made the June list because it was the first book I managed to finish in the wake of my exams and the only non-academic book I was able to read in May.

Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse
Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, three year after the publication of this book and it is impossible to ignore the possibility that the award was for this novel, though the award’s website suggests that Hesse won for his collected body of work. Magister Ludi, also published as The Glass Bead Game, tells the story of Joseph Knecht, a music prodigy and elite glass bead game player. Hesse sets the story in the fictional central European (German?) province of Castalia, the home of the elite schools that train glass bead game players and possess explicit parallels to both Catholic monastic communities and academic institutions. Castalia and the glass bead game are dedicated to purely intellectual pursuits, untainted by and removed from normal communities. Magister Ludi is a meditation on history, intellectualism, the relationship between the university and society and I particularly recommend it for anyone who has pursued, is pursuing, or may considering pursuing an academic lifestyle. This book is not a quick read, but is well worth the time invested. To put how much I enjoyed this book in perspective, I added it to my list of top novels where I have it ranked fourth.

Nelson: Sword of Albion, John Sugden
I reviewed this second volume of Sugden’s biography of Admiral Nelson here. In short, Sugden reveals intimate details from the last seven years of Nelson’s life (the recovery from the loss of his arm through his death at Trafalgar), focusing on Nelson’s relationships in the admiralty, his wife, Emma Hamilton, and his fellow officers. It was a somewhat interesting book, but I thought it fell flat, particularly in that this particular focus on Nelson and his letters led Sugden into superficial readings and a focus on a particular sliver of society.

Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk
To the authors of Amazon comments complaining that Istanbul is all Orhan all the time, the subtitle is “Memories and the City” and it is a literary memoir. Memoir: “a narrative composed from personal experience.” Pamuk, another Nobel Prize winner, is a Turkish novelist who has lived his entire life in Istanbul and entwines his memories of growing up in a well-to-do family in Istanbul after the revolution with the growth and modernization of the city. It is not a history of the city and Pamuk talks about few people other than his family and artists who used the city as the subjects, but he does an excellent job of giving the reader a feel for the city and also writing a memoir. I do suspect that Istanbul will appeal more to people who have spent time in the city than to those people for whom the city is just an idea.

A Supposedly Fun thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
Both Flesh and Not, DFW
Consider the Lobster, DFW
Three David Foster Wallace essay collections, each with some particularly great essays. Wallace’s style of long, frequent, and frequently nested footnotes can sometimes get convoluted, but he had a particularly engaging style and tone. He comes across as earnest, rebellious, and more honest than the rest of us, while also being dry and sarcastic. Reading his stories also reminded me of conversations I have had with some of my favorite people in that the flow of conversation may be unpredictable, but it is always engaging. I walked away from the essays wishing that he could comment on some recent things, including the movie Wall-E, Twitter, and the soon-to-be post Federer tennis scene, and I am looking forward to reading some of his other stories. Most likely I am going to read “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” because I loved the movie that was based on it, and will probably work my way up to Infinite Jest. It is also something he wrote in one of his essays that prompted me to finally check some of Kafka’s books out from the library.

In a Free State, V.S. Naipaul
The book I liked least,, In a Free State is three short stories bracketed by entries from Naipaul’s travel journal. The main setting of the stories range from London, to Washington DC, to East Africa and have different plots, but each fundamentally come back to the issues of freedom, power, and cultures. The first two stories (both shorter and much better than the eponymous story) both deal with people of non-Western background going to DC and England (respectively) and then grapple with the nature of economics and identity within those new roles, while the third follows the journey of two white people in East Africa while the state they live in is torn apart by what a civil war (and all-but) ethnic cleansing. I will probably give some of Naipaul’s other books a chance, but his prose did not hook me the way many other writers’ prose can and I was disappointed with this collection.

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