I read more fiction this month than in any calendar month in a few years, and so much so that I’m sorting and grouping the books by loose category, first literary fiction, then genre fiction.
Men at Arms, Evelyn Waugh
Guy Crouchback is the scion of a vaguely aristocratic, Catholic, British family most of the 1930s at his family’s villa in Italy after his marriage (a stint of which was spent in Kenya) failed. In 1939 he returns to England in order to help combat totalitarianism in Europe. Old for starting much of anything new, Crouchback wheedles his way into an old-fashioned unit, the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, and trains as an officer. Much like in Catch 22, hijinks ensue. In this case, though, the actual war remains a distant threat for most of the book. Men at Arms is the first book of Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy about World War 2 and I look forward to reading the next two.
The Siege, Ismail Kadare
The Ottoman war machine marches implacably through a balkan summer and sets up a for a siege of a nameless Albanian fortress. The soldiers are enthusiastic. Their commander is a decorated veteran, their force is large, their architect and engineer sure to quickly breach the wall, allowing them to pour through, slaughter the rebels, and claim for themselves the beautiful and exotic blonde women. The chronicler debates how he is going to appropriately capture the magnificence of the victory. But fissures appear in the expedition, between the commanders of the elite troops and the regular, expendable troops, between the religious men and the men of science. When the defenders resist the first assaults, the fissures grow larger and threaten to defeat the campaign.
Kadare, an Albanian author, captures the campaign and its mundane concerns and its mundane failures, looking at the balance between a literal host of characters who all pursue human pleasures and impulses and suffer human pains, and a literal host of characters who are supposed to be united toward a common goal that will result in thousands of deaths. I didn’t love The Siege, but I appreciated the in/humanity that Kadare showed. In part, I struggled with there being simultaneously too much going on and too little, and the plot largely consists of everything grinding to a halt and slowly falling apart. The impersonality of the entire novel also made particular scenes with the wives of the commander where there either was sex or sex was discussed all the more jarring since the distance remained through the intimacy. Most of this was by design, but, in my opinion, it isn’t a narrative device that is particularly effective or appealing. I would read something else by Kadare, but this was a lukewarm introduction for me.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Reviewed here, this is the Tartt’s campus novel about a death that shatters a circle of classics undergraduate students even as it has a relatively fleeting impact on the campus as a whole.
Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway
One of Hemingway’s posthumous novels, Islands in the Stream consists of three distinct episodes in the life of painter Thomas Hudson, each with a different tone and style. The first takes place on Bimini, where Hudson has a successful artistic life, which typically includes painting all morning, fishing, and drinking. His kids come to visit and life is grand. In the second, World War 2 has begun and Hudson hunts U-boats, but is awash in emotions because of the losses in his life and being swept off his feet by meeting his ex-wife. In the third, he is on a suicide mission to kill Germans. It is a simple arc that Hemingway stakes out, but there are as many or more emotional notes than in any of his novels.
This is later Hemingway. His prose remains stark, but it is visually remarkable, particularly in one scene that involves the protagonist and his friends getting drunk on a dock and firing flare guns at a dock covered with gasoline and at the commissioner’s house. A man on a boat moored at the dock repeatedly comes out to ask them to be quiet because his girlfriend is trying to sleep…and they mock him by saying that if he knew how to pleasure a woman she would be able to sleep through their drunken fun. The man gets mad and comes out to fight them, at which point one of the characters beats him in a boxing match. The whole scene is crude, but all the more effective for Hemingway’s direct, blustery style. Elsewhere, he effectively conveys the emotions of being a father, being in love, and needing revenge. Islands in the Stream was not as thoroughly pared down as his other posthumous novel, The Garden of Eden, but I cannot help but think that something was missing from this novel, not something that made them hold together better since these are all part of the same story, but something that bridged the gaps a little more effectively.
Post Captain, Patrick O’Brian
H.M.S. Surprise, Patrick O’Brian
The Mauritius Command, Patrick O’Brian
Desolation Island, Patrick O’Brian
Books 2-5 in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. At this point in the series, each book covers about a year in the wars between Napoleon and Great Britain, and Aubrey makes steady progression up the officer ranks such that by the fourth book he is not constantly the junior officer. He also makes money (at least at sea), marries, and has children–maturing and mellowing somewhat with age. Aubrey tends not to have consistent commands, which was likely the norm, particularly for captains a) who came into the service in a fairly haphazard way b) who made enemies like Aubrey does and c) who climbed the ranks like this. The stories do usually move along a little faster than the first one, but I suspect it is more from the books being shorter and getting used to the style since there remain lengthy passages that fill in the world but aren’t central to the story. I remain of the opinion that O’Brian is strongest when describing ships, battles, and sailing and develops two good characters that have a relationship that keeps things moving, but that he is not particularly good at plotting or storytelling. My favorite of these four was H.M.S Surprise.
Storm Front, Jim Butcher
Urban fantasy meets urban noir. Harry Dresden is a wizard in Chicago, a private eye, and a consultant for the police department. He’s also broke, so he leaps at the opportunity to work private case the same day that the police call about an grisly murder. The cases start out simply enough, and they even help Harry snag a date. Events quickly spiral out of control, though, as the killer starts going after him, the wizard council suspects him of being the murderer, and even the police begin to suspect him. Storm Front is the first book in The Dresden Files. Butcher does a nice job blending character construction, building an introduction to the world, and working through classic noir pacing and tropes. I really enjoyed this book and blew through it in about a day.
This book does include a good amount of slapsticky comedy as things go wrong for Dresden with regularity, yet he describes himself as an excellent, trained wizard. The whole story is told from a first-person “noir” viewpoint, so there is something to Dresden simply being an unreliable narrator overconfident in his own abilities because he is lucky. I see some of that going on here, but more of that is built into magic in Butcher’s world. Magic is powerful and can kill, but is much more limited and rare than often is the case in fantasy and things like potions not only are hard to make, but they degrade quickly. Magic also causes technology to fail. The pair to this is that magic can only do so much to protect what is an inherently weak material body, which leaves the wizard open to being mauled by supernatural beings with stronger bodies. Dresden is lucky (and being lucky is sometimes better than being good) and comedy does ensue when things go wrong, but neither does this necessarily mean that he is lying when he says he is an excellent wizard–as he points out on a few occasions, the other wizards tend not to be prowling the streets fighting crime.
My favorite of these books was The Secret History, but of the authors, I’m most looking forward to reading the next book by Butcher. I believe everyone has their “light” reading, things that other people would consider trashy. My drug of choice is fantasy.
The Terrorist Prince, Raja Anwar
Benazir Bhutto is a martyr for legitimate government in Pakistan, taking over the mantle from her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 by the army Chief of Staff Zia-ul-Haq. This book is less about Benazir and more about her younger brother Mir Murtaza. Where Benazir used legitimate political channels to uphold her family’s legacy, Murtaza formed a terrorist organization among the tribes in rural Pakistan to avenge his father and even managed to hijack an airplane. Raja Anwar was an associate of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and knew the children and generally has a bone to pick with the Bhutto clan. He portrays Murtaza as a marginally sane, largely inept young man with delusions of grandeur who is eventually assassinated in a plot concocted by Benazir’s husband. Anwar is not much kinder to Benazir and condemns them for treating Pakistan like a personal fief, regardless of which side of the law they claimed to be on.
Conversations with David Foster Wallace, ed. Stephen Burn
Conversations is a collection of interviews that David Foster Wallace gave, arranged in chronological order. Some of the answers were clearly questions he heard again and again and there was an almost resigned tone to them. Other answers provoked thoughtful retrospective responses and observations about US culture and art. There was also a clear arc in the interviews, with young DFW giving more thought to other authors, and older DFW giving more thought to his own bibliography and legacy. He noted how, early on, he was more interested in cleverness for its own sake, but how that became stale and he became more interested in emotion and humanism. There is a new essay out about DFW in anticipation of an upcoming biopic, and the author is somewhat critical of the cult of DFW, particularly because he is disdainful of certain aspects of Wallace’s self-conscious posturing that turned him into a sort of depressed Buddha, “slacker saint and liberal sage” for his followers. It is a fair analysis that takes nothing away from Wallace’s writing and is more insightful about them than many would-be acolytes are. The performative aspect of Wallace’s personality was particularly resonant with both the form and content of the interviews.
Phew. The list will almost certainly be shorter next month, as I am currently working my way through the first volume (of two) of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the medieval Chinese epic about the fall of the Han Dynasty. Right now the plan is to take a break after the first one and read the second next month, but we’ll see.