February 2016 Reading Recap

Nearly a week of March is already past, which is unfathomable. Time particularly flies when traveling, though, and I was at a conference in Omaha for several days. While there I did get to dig through Jackson Street Booksellers, a store with one of the more eclectic collections I know of and (too-high) walls of books that can be claustrophobic. In fact, there were a couple of books I considered looking at, but they were out of reach and I gave up. Other books remained out of my sight because I was tired and didn’t feel up to fighting through piles on the floor. I did, however, find several books by Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel Laureate, including the first book of the Cairo Trilogy, and a collection of stories by Nina Berberova about the Russian emigre community in Paris in the 1920s. In other words, I found some treasures. My (nominally-)immediate to-read pile, as opposed to my list, had already swollen from seven books to thirteen, and now sits at eighteen and had to be split into two, which is cutting into the symbolic significance of the stack.

I started this stack back in November and had actually been doing well finishing and shelving books from it and then replenishing the pile, at least through the start of February. Then I decided to give Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov another try and, simultaneously, got very, very busy. I barely opened the book during this past week and thus remain stuck at the halfway point of the novel. I am enjoying this one, more than Demons, but I am still struggling with a fundamental problem of dense literature of this length: I have a hard time really enjoying books that take this long to read. Note that this is not an issue of page-count, but one of time. In the past I thought this was a problem remembering what happened in the story, but I am not having this problem so much as just feeling it to be a slog, while the other books come calling to me. It is around the two-week point on the same book that I start feeling the weight of the burden. I am not saying that I will give up on the book again, but since reading is a particular hobby that I carve out time to enjoy, I may need to reconsider when I try to pick up books like Infinite Jest, War and Peace, and The Bleak House, lengthy tomes that remain on my list.

I am not going to do a recap of everything I finished in March because, for the second month in a row, I reviewed all five!

November 2015 Reading Recap

December is here–and already flying by. This is always a busy time of the semester and, even though I am not preparing students for exams or furiously grading papers to meet a deadline, I feel busier than I ever have been. This is because I have finally broken into a good stride in terms of writing, namely that I am spending most waking moments doing so, with a cup of coffee in front of me and surrounded by piles of library books. At the moment I am cleaning up the last few points on about eighty pages of dissertation revisions that I turn in on Monday, and have the review notes for revisions on an accepted article (plus one more job application) to tackle immediately after that. Then more dissertation revisions (I would like to get another 40 pages done in two weeks), work on two conference papers, a conference abstract, and edit another article for submission. I guess what I am saying is that I am staying busy but that progress is taking place. I also very much enjoy what I do. However, this also means that I have not had much time to focus on reading for fun, much less on writing here, though I did finish two books in November.

Demons, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Tweeted quotes.

I may get around to writing longer thoughts about this behemoth, but haven’t yet both because of the aforementioned writing tasks and because I am still trying to wrap my head around what happened in the story. I have mentioned before that I sometimes struggle keeping tabs on whoiswho and whatiswhat in reading Russian novels, and that was particularly the case in Demons, which careens between a large number of characters, sometimes being a close character study of individuals such as the intellectual Stepan Trofimovich, his patron Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin, and her son Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, other times commentary on the Russian Marxist vanguard committees, and still other times giving a sweeping impression of the interplay between the aristocracy and the common folks in the town. It is a dark, funny, examination of a political assassination (or set of assassinations, really) in an isolated Russian town where the people who look the best are often the most twisted, things that look too good to be true certainly are, and where there is a pervasive, exhausting tension at every level of society that is liable to break open. Things could be worse (as several characters note, they were once workers in America), and while the leading aristocrats play deadly idle games to maintain their position, the disaffected aspire to bring about a revolutionary future without having any idea what to do should they succeed. Perhaps most damningly of all, Dostoevsky sets this revolutionary committee squabbling amongst themselves in this provincial town where the threat to their lives from the state is still real, but where they seem to have no chance of affecting change.

The Letter Killers Club, Sigizmund Krizhazhonvsky
Review and Tweeted quotes.

Another Russian novel, set in 1920s Moscow. The Letter Killers are a collection of writers who now aspire to set free their conceptions by expounding in narrative form upon a theme every Saturday night. Letters and books, they say, inhibit the individual from having his own conceptions and thus the pure form is direct communication from conceiver to audience. The Letter Killers Club consists of a frame story told by the interloper (i.e. non-professional conceiver), and then five of the conceptions, one for each week of the story. Thus, when reading the book, one is reading the writings of a non-writer who both has his own narrative and transcribes five conceptions that were not meant to be written down. It is a dense little book that builds layer upon layer. I cannot claim to understand all of the themes so well as the narrator, but enjoyed it nonetheless. I also must applaud the New York Review of Books series for the attractive format of their books and for helpful introductory material.

I am now reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a book that I once picked up but am not sure I ever finished.

Live Tweet Demons

The third installment of tweets from novels: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s #Demons.

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Previously in this series, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life.

October 2015 Reading Recap, as such

Back near the start of October I decided to challenge myself by reading Dostoevsky’s Demons, in part because I have yet to successfully grind through one of those long Russian novels, having abandoned Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace part way through. I have more trouble with Russian translations than with a lot of other languages, and will readily admit I sometimes struggle to keep tabs on who is doing what when there are multiple ways of addressing each character. These are me problems, but I was determined.

Then October happened. The job application process happened, and a whole slew of things I needed to do came up, and a small number of social events sucked what little time I had left. There have been days where wheedling away at a dissertation paragraph has taken the place of opening a book for twenty minutes. It is all rather exhausting and I only managed to get through about a third of Demons. I have not yet given up on it, though, at this point, I might not finish it for another month. I hope not, and if it comes to that I might race through something a little bit lighter before I finish this one.

Anyway, that was my fiction reading for the month of October. Such as it was.

September 2015 Reading Recap

I finished three books in September, as the academic year picked up and things, as they do, got busy.

Grave Peril, Jim Butcher
Harry Dresden continues his wizarding, only, now in the third book, the decisions he made in the previous two are beginning to catch up with him. I did a little write up about the series after I finished reading this one. The general impression of it still stands, which is to say that they are fun, largely pulpy reads that can be addictive in the moment, but haven’t really compelled me to read on. The third book started to build to a larger plot that could make up for how thin the noir skin began to feel, and the cast of characters is starting to expand, but I am still taking a break from the series.

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to help a rich client, Dracula, who is moving to London. The he stumbles into a backward environment of unspeakable horror. The vampire escapes and descends on an unprepared England, while Harker, his wife Mina, Dr. John Seward, Arthur Holmwood (the beloved of the Vampire’s first english victim), the American Quincy Morris, and the Dutch doctor Abraham van Helsing combine Catholic doctrine, folk remedies, and the cleverness of modernity to hunt this relic from eastern Europe. One of my favorite things about reading classic novels for the first time is that some of them are so utterly familiar and yet completely bastardized by subsequent representations. That is the case here, where many of Dracula’s traits and various descriptions are familiar, yet this specific version is not one often portrayed. I loved just about every minute of reading this beautiful mess of a novel. It is easy to see how this book was (and sometimes still is) considered overwritten and lowbrow, with dozens of concepts and fads mashed together in sometimes bizarre ways, and how it became a classic of Western literature. I have also started posting to Twitter quotes from books I read, and have collected them into a blog post.

The New Life, Orhan Pamuk
Reviewed and quotations collected.

One of Pamuk’s early works, The New Life is the story of a book and a girl that inspired young men to seek a new life, while being ambiguous about what the new life is. Most of the story takes place in shadowy buses careening across Turkey, at a time when and place where identities are transient. The men, particularly, in the story all seek a way to achieve equilibrium after reading the book, but the only way to reach this balance is to suspend themselves from a world that is racing onward. The New Life is not an easy book to describe and while it fits thematically in Pamuk’s oeuvre, it is not part of the same semi-real Istanbul that forms the backdrop of, for instance, The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence. This is also a book that I have grown more fond of upon letting it sink in than I necessarily was in the middle of it, so I’ll tentatively say it was my favorite of the month.


October is probably going to be another tight month for reading, particularly because I am starting off with an ambitious read, at least in terms of time investment. Currently, I am reading Dostoevsky’s Demons.