February Reading Recap

I have a chapter due soon and should really be working on it, but have decided to write up this post as a writing exercise anyway. I read five books, four fiction, one non-fiction last month.

A Curse on Dostoevsky, Atiq Rahimi
Rassoul is an Afghani who studied Russian literature in St. Petersburg during the Russian invasion. Now that Afghanistan is torn between rival warlords he is in Kabul and, in the opening of the novel, kills Nana Alia, who has been prostituting his betrothed, Sophia. As he kills Nana Alia, Rassoul thinks about Crime and Punishment and, through the next weeks of his life, lives out the plot of Dostoevsky’s novel. Some of the individual characters in the work, including family members, friends, and a variety of Taliban members, some of whom support Rassoul, some of whom want to kill him for knowing Russian, were engaging, but the overall plot of the story was not particularly engaging. Perhaps if I had read Crime and Punishment I would have had different feelings.

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

Reviewed here, Inverted World is a dystopian science fiction novel from the 1970s that revolves around the questions of technology, civilization, and relativity in the perception of others. At no point did it feel like a spectacular novel, but it also moved quickly and built toward a really satisfying conclusion. The longer I think about this one, the more likely it is to appear on my list of favorite novels (albeit likely toward the end).

The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa

The Jaguar, the Slave, and the Poet are classmates in their final year at Leoncio Prado Military academy in Lima. They are not friends, though in their first year they banded together to help each other. The Poet manages to keep others away from him with his glib tongue and willingness to write letters. The Jaguar is a vicious leader. The Slave is viciously mocked and harassed by his classmates, unwilling and unable to defend himself. The jokes, pranks and mockery always had a sadistic edge, but tensions escalate after a copy of a test is stolen in the middle of the night and the cadets are confined to the base. Someone squeals, someone dies–and the tension is not only about resolving who did it, but why.

the Time of the Hero was a scandalous book when it was published in 1963 and Llosa does a good job of keeping the reader guessing throughout, even as the characters, unknown to each other, are bound by mutual acquaintances on the outside. The first half of the novel dragged, but it really picked up in the second half. The book it most resembled was Lord of the Flies, which was probably part of the reason that it took me so long to get into it (I hated LotF in high school). However, The Time of the Hero is more complex and sophisticated, building on how the characters got into the school in the first place and offering the academy as a microcosm of Peruvian society–in which the most honest, most morally upright characters suffer for their goodness.

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher

My favorite of the month, Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel about the contemporary state of the humanities. Jay Fitger is a creative writing professor at the fictional midwest school, Payne University. The English department is being further staffed by adjuncts, its building is under renovation with them still inside, and Fitger’s students are in all manner of straights, for which he writes them an incessant stream of recommendation letters. More than three thousand of them. Fitger’s letters are glib, impertinent, sarcastic, and marginally focused, but impeccably polite. From the tone of his letters, particularly to repeat recipients, there is a sense that Fitger is by nature a contrarian and not easy to deal with, but the letters are funny for an outsider to read and true to form about much of the circumstances of modern academia.

Going into reading this book, I feared that Schumacher would make Fitger come across as too cynical, academia too fully broken, and the presentation of his relationship with students and colleagues too much of the worst stereotypes about academics. Where she succeeds most is in making Fitger an absolutely flawed, not particularly pleasant person who wants the university to survive, wants the best for his students, and generally has his heart in the right place even when there is someone he doesn’t like.

God and Man at Yale, William Buckley

Admittedly, a strange choice for a fun reading book, this is Buckley’s diatribe against the standard moderate-left consensus of the university. In it he argues that, by teaching the values of economic collectivism and religious atheism, Yale had violated its founding mission and the wishes of the alumni base. He starts with the fundamental position that free-market economics and Christianity are in all ways good things for civilization and continues into the argument that “academic freedom” should be governed by the free market. Namely, Buckley believes that there should be the liberty to research however the professor wants, but that, so long as their research is being funded by teaching students, the professors must only teach the values and ideas sanctioned by the board of trustees. So long as the professor has the option to resign, then he says mandating particular curricula does not violate academic freedom.

Buckley has some interesting and sometimes valid points scattered throughout this book, including that the idea of academic freedom blurs between liberty to teach and to research without interruption, but three points jumped out at me. First, he names graduate instructors by name and dresses them down for what they taught. The thought of this terrifies me in this new age of social media. Second, I largely disagree with Buckley on the issue of Christianity versus Atheism, but it is also interesting to note how these cultural issues vary in the sense of us against them and suspect that one could remove atheism, add islam and republish it with minimal changes so that it would appeal to people today. Third, I couldn’t help but note that Buckley doesn’t have a problem with a standard convention that will indoctrinate young people. His major problem is with what that convention is.

Noted above, I have a chapter due, so whatever I read next will have to wait. Right now I’m not sure what that will be.

Inverted World, Christopher Priest

Helward Mann is six hundred and fifty miles old, which means it is time for him to be inducted into his guild–and to venture beyond the walls of the city for the first time. But first, he must swear an oath never to reveal what it is like outside, where the city is being constantly winched along tracks through a hostile landscape in pursuit of the Optimum. Exactly what all of this is, nobody is quite certain, but they tell Helward that they have absolute faith in the way things are and he will come to agree in time–and he is to be married. Helward’s life is about to change dramatically.

The story unfolds through Helward’s discovery of the world, sometimes in first, sometimes in third person. At first the world confuses him and he shares his bafflement with his wife, but his experiences change him. As he learns about the world, Helward becomes increasingly entrenched with respect to the necessity of the traditional guild system. It is the only way to preserve civilization…except that the reader is well aware that there are functioning human beings outside of the closed circuit of the city.

Inverted World is a hard science fiction novel set in the distant future after a collapse reduced most of the world to anarchy. The bulk of the story, then, is the discovery of the concept as to how people in the city experience the world. Layered within this concept is an allegory about the relationships, economic and otherwise, between “civilized” and “uncivilized” people, insularity, and having an over-developed sense of importance in the world–and about facing the inevitable.

Certain aspects of the book felt dated, which is only natural since it was published in 1974, but many of the same concerns are relevant. The summaries I had originally read of the book made it sound like a post-apocalyptic class-based allegory along the lines of Snowpiercer , which made sense because the two were first published within a few years of each other. But the “isolated community circling the world to survive” is where the similarities begin and end, at least from what I know about Snowpiercer, which is, admittedly, not much.There are elements of class struggle here, but the principle concept deals with relativity and perception, with the other concepts, including the math-y science fiction ones that give the story its mystery (and lead to the perception issues), forming the scenery. Thus, Priest taps into the relationship between first and third worlds rather than into strata of the same society. The writing was at time choppy, but Inverted World was an excellent read that moved along quickly and spun out the mystery such that the core isn’t revealed until the final pages and Helward’s inner turmoil is left aptly unresolved.

I haven’t decided what is next yet because I am swamped by grading at the moment, but I am leaning toward Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoevsky. My only hesitation is that I read a really negative review that called it a poor knockoff of Crime and Punishment without even being an interesting novel about Afghanistan.