July 2015 Reading Recap

I read a lot again in July, quickly falling back into old habits of spending muggy evenings just reading and, for most of the month, felt pretty well-balanced as a result. Part of the reason I was able to read so much was that, for the first time in a while, I read a significant amount of science fiction and fantasy and fewer literary fiction novels. In many ways the situation gave me flashbacks to years gone by.

Literary Fiction
Romance of the Three Kingdoms v.1, Luo Guanzhong
Reading this, the first of two volumes of the medieval Chinese epic that retold the dissolution of the Han Dynasty around 200 CE. The translation I used is quite dated and the romance is particularly stilted at times, with action usually being said to happen rather than narrated. Nevertheless, the story itself is engaging, as the it narrates the intrigues between the decadent house of Wu in the south, the wily and ruthless Cao Cao of Wei, and the noble and righteous Liu Bei of Shu. I had fond memories of the video game Dynasty Warriors as I was reading, but this is not a book I would necessarily recommend for anyone who is not already invested in the endeavor.

The Fortune of War, Patrick O’Brian
The continuing adventures of Aubrey and Maturin take them to Boston at the outset of The War of 1812 and includes the naval duel between the H.M.S. Shannon and U.S.S. Chesapeake. The bulk of this story takes place with the two men scheming to escape captivity after their capture. The writing of this book is on the upper end of O’Brian’s novels thus far, but it still tends to bog down when he is not writing about sailing. I didn’t find this arc nearly as tedious as the ones involving life back home in England, but it was still not my favorite. Still, I appreciate O’Brian’s dedication to particular types of historical accuracy.

The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth
This novel continues the story of the Trotta family in Austria that was begun by The Radetsky March, though the protagonists of the two share little beyond their name. This story uses World War One as a fulcrum and tells of the the declining fortune of the Trottas after the war as all their ventures fail. However, the story suffers from many of the moralistic problems of the the former novel without the charm. In particular, Roth goes out of his way to emphasize the averageness of the the Trotta family in the first, showing them to be swept along by forces entirely beyond their control even while they make decisions. In this one there are many of the issues, but without the same setup. The result is that within this particular narrative the characters, none of whom are particularly nice or endearing, simply try ineffectually and fail. Perhaps this particular feature of the Trotta family is meant to carry over from one story to the next, but one would expect there to be some reminder if that was the case. The result is a dreary, dull read and not a particularly good story, though the crushing weight of the environmental factors remain constant in both.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Fool Moon, Jim Butcher
The second book of the Dresden Files novels continues the adventures of the Wizard/Private Eye Harry Dresden. As one may guess by the campy title, this on involves were-wolves. I’m not yet sure how I feel about the series. The novels are pulpy and campy, but addictive. The first two also have the feel of an author playing around, honing a craft, and not yet with a larger story arc in mind. I will read at least one more, but, after that, who knows.

The Rebirths of Tao, Wesley Chu
Speaking of addictive, this The Rebirths of Tao concludes this trilogy that began with the Lives of Tao. True to form, each installment adds layers, both to the narrative and the global conflict that threatens the existence of the human race. Chu’s writing remains snappy, clever, fast-paced, and, above all, fun, but just wasn’t as tight as in the previous two novels. Nevertheless, Rebirths is a fitting conclusion to the series.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov
I am somewhat ashamed how long it took me to read Foundation, a classic text in the genre. This is the story of the decline and fall of a galactic empire, which has stood for millennia. A scholar named Hari Seldon has perfected “Psychological History,” which is the history of the future as dictated by economic and sociological principles. Despite the imperial court being convinced of its invincibility, Seldon has become convinced of that the empire will collapse and be followed by thirty thousand years of barbarism–but the time can be reduced to one thousand, if he is allowed to create a galactic encyclopedia on a distant world. The encyclopedia itself is a feint, but Seldon has predicted that the world will restore civilization, so long as they do not come to rely on individual heroism. There is a general lack of strong narrative arc or dynamic characters, but the ideas in this book are provocative and worth thinking about, even though the specific technology (nuclear) is a product of its own age.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Douglas Adams
Another book that I meant to have read some time ago, started once, and just never got back to. Adams had some wonderful backs and forths and observations, but his style of witty, clever nonsense that sometimes defies any sort of narrative sense just isn’t really my thing, at least not anymore. I may read the second book in the series for completion’s sake, but I didn’t like DGHDA as much as a lot of more recent books or Hitchhiker’s Guide. The preoccupation with antiquated computers also seemed stilted.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
Reviewed here, Liu’s first novel in his epic fantasy trilogy is a soaring epic modeled on Chinese epic rather than western quest stories. I loved this book and it was pretty easily my favorite read of the month.

Nonfiction
Palmyra and its Empire Richard Stoneman
A somewhat dated book that I suspect I read once many years ago, I picked this one up again because of the disappointing news coming out of Palmyra. As a BMCR reviewer put it, this book combines relatively popular history narratives about Zenobia with much denser narrative and argumentation about Palmyra and its role in the Roman frontier. The feeling that I had read the book before took some of the wind out of my sails and I don’t find myself quite as intrigued by Roman history as I once did, but this is still a worthwhile read.

The Bagel Maria Balinska
Reviewed here, Balinska traces the history of the bagel from the fork that divided the bread from its Christian counterpart in medieval Poland, through its immigration to America as a ethnic Jewish food, its role in the labor movement around the turn of the century, and finally through its conquest of America as a ubiquitous breakfast food. There is a larger story than the narrow one Balinska tells in the second half of the book, but the simplistic story works well enough and should I ever find myself teaching US History for my supper, this is a book that I will use in my teaching.

Lessons from Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Early this month, I finished reading the first volume of Lo Kuan-chung’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is touted as China’s oldest novel. The book combines oral stories and written histories about the period (c.200 CE) when the decaying Han Dynasty fell apart under the influence of rival warlords and eventually split into three rival kingdoms. Dated translation aside, the text is fairly dry and repetitive as people run, walk, ride, and march from place to place (without a map, for those of us unfamiliar with large swathes of Chinese geography), with duels generally consisting of two heroes waging bouts against each other on horseback until one dies or flees. In this regard, the video game series Dynasty Warriors largely captures the essence of the romance. At the heart of the conflict in the story is the struggle between the clever and ruthless minister Cao Cao and the virtuous and royal Liu Bei [these are not the transliterations used by my text, but are those in Dynasty Warriors, and the ones I am most familiar with]. In the time honored tradition of reading classic Chinese texts and extracting lessons for westerner audiences, I have found a few.

  1. Every stratagem has been used before and has a name. Usually this name will be a literal rendition of the trick and, sometimes, the end objective.
  2. If a man you respect comes into your house, you should feed him meat. If you have no animal meat, you should still try to feed him meat, but if the choice comes down to serving him your wife or mother, you should kill and serve your wife, because you will likely be compensated with cash to purchase yourself a new wife. However, a reputation for this behavior will have a deleterious effect on getting local women to marry you.
  3. Unless you are going for sympathy points with your guest, do not just leave your butchered wife on the kitchen table overnight because your guest will likely stumble upon the body. If the guest finds out, though, this is the surest way to be compensated for your loss.
  4. If you happen to be a guest at a dinner like this, do not be overly alarmed at the possibility of cannibalism and make sure to pay the host for his loss. If possible, get your rival to actually make the payment.
  5. Wives are expendable, but less so than peasant soldiers. A single hero can trump hundreds of peasants, and one of the most effective forms of misinformation is to thrash peasants within an inch of their life and then release them to the enemy.
  6. Children are replaceable, talented subordinates are not. If subordinates risk their lives for your children before the children grow up and amount to anything, they should be rebuked.

The Secret History, Donna Tartt

I am probably the last person who both holds a classics degree and reads novels (and is from Vermont!) to read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Years ago I was having a conversation with Tom Zoellner (the author of Uranium) before he did a reading at Backpages Books in Waltham and he asked me if I had read it. I thought he was referring to Procopius’ history of Justinian, Theodora, and Belisarius that is translated under the same title.

Richard Papen, the narrator of The Secret History has fled suburbia USA (Plano, CA) where nothing is older than the 1960s, to an isolated pocket of the liberal arts in small town Vermont that is Hampden College (modeled on Bennington College). There he worms his way into into an incestuous, cultish circle of Classicists under the mesmeric guidance of Professor Julian Morrow. Richard is an outsider to this group as a newcomer, and as someone whose family doesn’t have even the pretense of wealth and status. But, as he comes to be accepted as sorts, his entrée into this circle leaves him isolated from the rest of the college. Nor is Richard at all close with his family, and the circle of Classicists is all he has.

There is no secret in the plot of The Secret History, which Richard shares about ten years after the events. The members of the little circle of classics, for reasons that come to be explained, kill their colleague Bunny Corcoran. The question, then, is not what happened, but why and what effect did it have on the participants.

One of the remarkable things Tartt achieves is to tell an engaging tale and provoke positive emotional responses about the characters, all of whom are repugnant. On one level these characters are idealized versions of classicists; they are superior to other students, they speak to each other in Greek and Latin, they pursue the sublime, the eternal, where even the art students are engaged in the mundane. On the other hand, Richard is habitual liar and actively runs away from his problems, they all drink heavily (though they specify Charles as having a problem), and the rest are various degrees of austere, severe, distant, and manipulative. Even Camilla, the most likable of the crew (and not just because she is idealized as Richard’s crush), suffers from many of these same problems. And then there is Bunny, who is demanding, needy, insulting, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and, as we are often reminded, simply not as good a student as the rest of them.

Tartt’s prose holds the reader through, compelling you to follow along, and there are a few features that ameliorate the sense that everyone is awful. While it is clear that the protagonists are not nice people, their monstrosity doesn’t come through in most cases until near the end, at which point she makes you nostalgic for the mean camaraderie of yestermonth. The characters do help each other out and are inextricably bound together, which creates a bond. All of this applies doubly to their relationship with Bunny Corcoran, who is nothing but awful and Richard insists repeatedly that they were friends and indeed liked him. More than any other part, this reminded me of that particular age (c.18) where, being thrust together with a random assortment of people, one makes friendships that from the outside look like nothing of the sort. Some of the faults, particularly the early ones encountered, are the sort borne of youthful hubris and stupidity that are possible to grow out of.

The Secret History confronts issues of beauty, aesthetics, memory, guilt, class, and sex, and does so well. But one of the mysteries that I found distracting and intriguing was when the story took place. It was published in 1992, the story is supposed to take place ten years in the past, and there were enough hints that I eventually settled on the main action taking place in 1981 or 1982, but the characters largely exist within a bubble where time has frozen so the few references to the television set are all the more striking. The Vermont, liberal arts, and Classics setting all give some protection from the crush of modernity, but there “pop” references that dated the story and passing a lot of the events off as 2015 contemporary would have been ludicrous. The same story could be told without a problem, but it would require more firm dating, which, in turn, starts to unravel the timeless aesthetic that the protagonists aspire to.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Secret History and found Tartt’s tone and writing more than sufficient. I, too, developed affection for Camilla, admiration for Henry, and sympathy for Bunny, even while determining early on that I wanted nothing to do with any of them. Vermont and Classics may have been a perfect trap for me, but it snared me.

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I probably spent too much time reading fun books in June and have read quite a few since finishing The Secret History (a full reading review will probably go up tomorrow). Now I have started working my way through the first of two volumes of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the 14th century Chinese epic attributed to Luo Guanzhong about the collapse of the Han Dynasty. The whole English translation is about 1300 pages, but, depending on how I feel, I may take a break between volumes 1 and 2. So far it reminds me of L’Morte Arthur more than anything.