March Reading Recap

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes
I read Heart of Darkness a few years ago and, while it was a challenging read, I found it quite moving and decided I would read his other works. I only made it a few pages into The Secret Agent before giving that up because I was busy. This past month I made another pass, this time picking up Under Western Eyes. Razumov, a student who is usually taken for being more intelligent than he is because he doesn’t talk much, is drawn into a revolutionary conspiracy against the Tsar. The plot launched its first attack with grenade attack against ranking ministers and one of the conspirators, Haldin, seeks refuge in R.’s apartment. R. then sells him out to the government before fleeing the country himself Though most of the action (such that it is) takes place in St. Petersburg, the story itself is set in Geneva, where R. went into exile (at the behest of the Tsarist regime) and where he meets and falls in love with Haldin’s sister. The narrator, old English instructor who knows a few members of the Russian ex-pat community, pieces the story together from R.’s journal and his conversations with the participants and declares that he is writing the account as a westerner and intending for it to be read by an English audience–supposedly so that they can see the conditions and flaws of both the Russian state and the revolutionary movements.

There were some interesting passages in this novel, but, on the whole, I found that the story dragged. Conrad is loquacious and oblique throughout the story–in part due to “secret history” structure and deferred narrative authority. I suspect that some of my reaction to the book has more to do with me than with the novel since I seem to have lost my taste for seemingly antiquated prose in the years since I read Heart of Darkness. Under Western Eyes is still worth leading, but I did not love it nearly as much as I had hoped to going in. In short, I loved this book.

Albert Cossery, The Jokers
Full review found here here, The Jokers was my favorite of the three books I read this month. The Jokers, the eponymous comic heroes of the novel, don’t care about money, power, society, bureaucracy, or much else. The entire world is one big joke that most people, particularly the people in power, are too stupid to realize. In some ways, lightheartedness is the polar opposite of the oppressiveness of Under Western Eyes. In short, I highly recommend this book.

Brandon Sanderson, Words of Radiance
The second book Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, which is long epic fantasy series–long both in books and words; this volume is about as long a book as they (the publishers) could bind. Like all books I like in this mold, the beauty lies in the breadth and depth of the world more than in any one plot arc or character–the world is between “desolations” and there are a few different people or groups of people who are all trying to save the world, though they are all doing so with incomplete information and different short term goals, meaning that they have a tendency to expend as much information combatting people who are blind to the larger need and against each other as they do working for “the greater good.” As is appropriate for a second book, too, Sanderson brings back most of the featured characters from the first book–Dalinar, the king’s uncle and warlord, Kaladin, a former slave and spearman, Shallan, an artist and scholar from a family fallen from grace, etc, and then expands the roles for others such as Adolin and Renarin, Dalinar’s sons, and others. Each book has flashbacks dedicated to a single character, so where the first was Kaladin, the second is Shallan, wherein you get to learn how terrible her upbringing was and why.

I’m not sure that I would recommend this book to people who are not already fans of this style of fantasy–and if you are, please start with the first book. But for fans of the genre, Sanderson does a good job at world creation and designing interesting magic systems, and this installment provides one of the most obvious crossovers to his other work (all his books exist in the same multiverse and are connected, though each series is designed to stand on its own). I’ve been reading this style of book since elementary school and love a well-crafted world, particularly those that aren’t simply rehashing old tropes and come across feeling pre-packaged from a generic DnD or fantasy novel world starter kit. I like other series and other authors better, but I do believe that Sanderson is one of the top fantasy authors currently writing and am eagerly waiting for the next installment.

March was a busy month for me between teaching, grading, writing, and a short, but remarkably busy, trip to Minneapolis for a 65th wedding anniversary, so I only finished three books. April may well be more of the same, but I am currently in the middle of Alberto Moravia’s novel Boredom and picked up a bunch of new (used) books in Minneapolis that I am looking forward to reading, including Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, Cossery’s Proud Beggars and Llosa’s The War at the end of the World.

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