A Recent Reading Recap

The thing about my current semester is that it barely left time to think, let alone do anything, but I did manage to crawl my way through a few books. Now that my semester is winding down and I finally have a moment to breathe, I have a chance to jot down notes.

Elif Batuman, The Possessed – My least favorite of the books I read this fall, The Possessed is a memoir about graduate school and Russian literature in which long sections read as though she was workshopping ideas for the book that eventually became her novel The Idiot. Batuman is a gifted writer and I enjoyed the discussions of Russian literature, but those often went beyond the authors I was familiar with and I was generally underwhelmed by her presentation of graduate school.

Eric Rauchway, Winter War – One of my aspirational goals for teaching is to read one new book about each class I teach in a given semester, beyond whatever other prep I have done. This was my choice for my Modern Americna history class. In Winter War, Rauchway examines the months between the election of 1932 and Roosevelt’s inauguration to show the radical start of Roosevelt’s New Deal and how Hoover sought to undermine his successor. This was a really excellent book that deftly leads the reader through the political maneuverings at the height of the Great Depression.

Josh Gondelman, Nice Try – The final non-fiction book I read this fall was Gondelman’s Nice Try. I attended Brandeis at the same time as Gondelman and we have a number of mutual friends, but I know him primarily as a writer for TV and on Twitter as the world’s nicest comedian. This collection is a delightful, light-hearted stroll through the serious topic of trying to be both a nice and good person in the world.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu – The fourth book in Le Guin’s Earthsea series is one of the best. Like Tombs of Atuan, this novel picks up the story of Tenar, now living on Gont as a middle-aged woman named Goha, her children grown. The inciting event comes when two people come into her life. First, an emotionally and physically damaged child she names Therru and then Sparrowhawk, no longer a mage, but a broken old man. The result is a heart-wrenching fantasy story of sorrow and loss that, like the rest of the series, undermines the typical heroic tropes including, this time, the notion that a single heroic victory would in fact set the world at rights.

Myke Cole, The Armored Saint – I started following Cole on Twitter because of his interest in ancient Greek history, but I also appreciate a good fantasy novel and he recommended people start with this one. The Armored Saint is a coming of age story about Heloise Factor, the daughter of the town’s scribe. What impressed me about this book is how Cole creates the sense of history, with adults having fought in past wars and an Order that prevents demons from entering the world by making sure that no wizard survives, while nevertheless focalizing this story that takes place in one small valley through the point of view of this young woman who, rightfully, is angry at members of the Order who abuse their power.

Jose Saramago, Blindness – The only capital-L literature book I read this semester was by Portuguese Nobel-winner José Saramago. Blindness is a harrowing story of a city that descends to anarchy when its citizens begin going blind. The government responds to the initial cases by quarantining the afflicted in an asylum, in the hopes that it will stop its spread. But the asylum fills up, and one of the wings organizes a ring to control the spread of supplies, extorting money and sex from the other wings. Then the supplies stop coming in and the inmates escape into a world abandoned when every one went blind. Overall Blindness struck me as a much more sophisticated and satisfying take on the themes of Lord of the Flies. My one lingering question was about the character of the doctor’s wife, who accompanies her husband into the asylum and is the only character in the entire book who never goes blind. I couldn’t decide what to make of her character, eventually deciding that she is saved by her selfless sacrifices at every turn, but also finding that this level of metaphor didn’t quite fit with the rest of characters in the novel. I quite liked Blindness in sum, but the fact that I came away wishing that I read it at a time when I could give it more attention means I might need to re-read this one.

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I am now reading Robin Hobb’s Ship of Destiny, the conclusion of her Liveship Traders Series. By the time I’m done, I hope to have enough time to write full review posts again.

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!

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.

June 2015 Reading Recap

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.

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.

Nonfiction

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.

November 2014 Reading Recap

I am in disbelief that December is upon us. For a variety of reasons, some of which aren’t even related to my dissertation, life has gotten v. hectic, but here’s a quick rundown of my November reading.

Bridge on the Drina – Ivo Andric

Andric’s masterpiece (one of the trilogy for which he won the Nobel Prize) is a story about the onrush of modernity in a small Balkan town. The town is rural, the inhabitants in the the various hamlets vaguely aware of the goings on in the world at large–particularly when the time comes to pay dues to the Ottomans. Then a Vizier orders the construction of the eponymous bridge. The town grew up around the bridge, expanding with time and subjected to the pressures modernity up to the first World War, including rebellion, occupation, war, railroads, and nationalism. The one constant is the bridge.

The book is of the high-literary variety and drags at times, but also has a penchant for evocative imagery, including a gruesomely graphic description of a man who gets impaled on a spike and suffers for a long time. I came away with an active interest in something like this not happening to me–as opposed than the standard disinterest in painful punishment.

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

A hero’s journey story that caused my brother to express disbelief when I told him I hadn’t already read it. Santiago is a young Andalusian shepherd who is encouraged to follow his dreams and go to the Pyramids in Egypt in order to unlock his Personal Legend. Along the way he meets obstacles, some of which are pleasant, that threaten his journey. He stays on course and writes his own legend. The story is simplistic in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t invalidate the points made. I liked but didn’t love the book, but could see including it in a list of books read to fairly young children, ones who should be reminded that there is a time to wander and that personal legends are there to be written, chased, and that a decent portion of luck is about putting oneself out there. Then again, we can all use that reminder sometimes.

The Lives of Tao – Wesley Chu

Reviewed here, The Lives of Tao is a fun book about an unlikely hero who gets inhabited by a millenia-old alien named Tao who once helped make Genghis Khan into a world-conqueror. Ultimately, it is an alt-history action-adventure, martial arts story. Admittedly, I am a sucker for stories about the hero’s journey and while there were certain elements of the story that I found youthful and might have found problematic in other books, I had enough fun reading The Lives of Tao that that sensation overrode any problems I had. It was my favorite read for the month.

Noted above, my life is crazy right now and I haven’t started a new book yet, but I’ve been carrying around Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration, so that will probably be the next one I read.