The Skin, Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed here, The Skin is a grotesquely surreal retelling of the American liberation of Italy in 1943. It is horrifying and nightmarishly entrancing.
I The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos
Reviewed here, this is a sprawling portrait of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco, a nineteenth century dictator of Paraguay who was, simultaneously, a brutal and progressive ruler.
Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian
Horatio Nelson fan fiction, I scoffed, but self-consciously so. This is the first novel in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, twenty acclaimed volumes of the adventures of Lucky Jack Aubrey, officer in the British Navy, and his physician/spy Stephen Maturin. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, O’Brian’s books are v. well-researched historical fiction about the British navy and he fills the pages with naval esoterica and a colorful cast of characters of diverse origin. I like and appreciate his dedication to accuracy of a certain shade and it seems that early in the series O’Brian is doing a lot of groundwork toward establishing that he knows what is talking about in this time and place, but he also tends to be long-winded and willing to allow his characters to wallow in a place because that, too, was part of life in the British navy during the period, which doesn’t make for the most enthralling story. I’m currently reading the second book in the series, Post Captain, and was recently told that the books pick up the pace from there.
My favorite of these three was I The Supreme.
Non-fiction! One of my summer goals is to, on weekends, read non-fiction that is not directly related to my research or teaching. The next two books are the result of this.
Patriot of Persia, Christopher de Bellaigue
What if Ghandi was a life-long bureaucrat and politician who was overthrown by a CIA organized coup? In many ways, that is how de Bellaigue presents the “tragic” fall of Mohammed Mossadegh, prime minister of Iran. Mossadegh was the scion of the Iranian Qajar dynasty, a lawyer and an accountant who had a long but intermittent career in Iranian politics, even after the Qajar dynasty was overthrown by Reza Pahlavi in 1925. The core arc that de Bellaigue follows is the role of the British, in the form of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, in Iranian politics, building toward Mossadegh’s nationalization of the oil industry and the subsequent coup. He suggests that Mossadegh’s upright and honest morality led to remarkable successes in his early career, but also that it led to his tendency to judge people from the sidelines. This combination allowed Mossadegh to become a potent demagogue, but his tolerance for people who espoused ideas that differed from his own sowed the seeds for his demise when international oil embargoes threatened to bankrupt the state, a concerted Anglo-American misinformation campaign undermined (but did not destroy) popular support, and a coup restored the Shah to power.
de Bellaigue was prone to purple prose at times and had some unfortunate word choices, some that said things he did not mean (such as referring to the AIOC as “great,” rather than large), others that were problematic double entendres. He also hinted at things, both regional conflicts and domestic situations, that do not appear in the core narrative, but it came across as a well-researched and largely balanced account of Mossadegh’s life. My main complaint was that the book could have used maps, both of Tehran and Iran, particularly because he frequently refers to places throughout both.
The Prehistory of the Silk Road, E.E. Kuzmina
Kuzmina, a Russian archeologist, argues that the links of people, technologies, and commodities between east and west the defined the Silk Road from the Roman period through the Middle Ages did not begin then, but existed as far back as the Neolithic Period.