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.

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.

ΔΔΔ

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.

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (T. Anthony Chambers)

Perhaps the easiest way to explain Tanizaki’s 1935 novel, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, is to posit the existence of a “secret history” genre, that, if loosely defined could be expanded to include alt-earth or even roughly contemporary mystery-thriller novels such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the “American Treasure” movies, the Men in Black, or superheros. More narrowly, this genre blurs the lines between fiction, rumor, and history in order to explain how the world was (or is) at a particularly point in time beyond the historical record. The author or narrator of the text usually takes a stance that the record is flawed (at best) or manufactured (at worst), but, thanks to previously disregarded sources, this secret history will fix the oversight.

One frequent trope in this genre is that beneath an honorable facade and commendable actions lie paraphilia–sexual depravity and unspeakable behavior. For instance, Procopius, a sixth century historian from Caesarea, records that the Empress Theodora would exhaust up to thirty young men at a single sitting and lament that she was unable to have sex through her nipples, finding her other orifices insufficient (9). Now, Theodora probably did nothing of the sort and Justinian was almost certainly not a plague-bearing demon intent on destroying mankind (12), but these appear as the causes of suffering during Justinian’s reign in a text that a later Latin title appropriately calls “The secret History.”[1] As a historical record, Procopius’ work is problematic (though not useless), but it is an entertaining read. For the purposes of this discussion, though, this style of narrative, replete with conspiratorial stories and a declaration that the stories will set the record straight are particularly well-suited to fiction.

In Tanizaki’s tale, the author purports to be telling the coming of age story of the lord of Musashi, which, he says, will also reveal the origins of the lord’s peculiar brand of sadistic sexual proclivities that do not appear in the official record and exist only as rumor. According to the author, the official story about the lord is that he was a fearsome warrior and commander during the period of Japanese civil wars in the 16th century, but at the start of the 20th century he has “discovered” two memoirs written by people who were close to the lord and set the record straight. Unlike Stendhal’s The Abbess of Castro, which Tanizaki translated into Japanese in 1928, both the characters and the sources The Secret History are works of fiction.[2]

I cannot say that I loved this novel, but it was short and eminently readable, with enough tension and characterization, particularly with the juxtaposition of the increasing depravity of the lord of Musashi and the aspirations to purity of the people around him, that I was entertained. Despite its content, or perhaps because of it, The Secret History possesses a subdued humor that emerges from the absurd lengths the young man goes through to achieve satisfaction. Moreover, Tanizaki portrays Japanese culture at the time–something I know little about–as obsessed with decorum, which heightens the tension between the Lord of Musashi and everyone else. And yet in the preface, the author says that he sympathizes with the lord because everything he did, including bring peace in a time of civil war, was caused by an overwhelming passion for a beautiful and refined woman who did not reciprocate his feelings. He sympathizes with this man, while simultaneously recording precious little that is actually sympathetic.

Here I am being deliberately vague. The central conflict in the narrative, exacerbated by his introduction to the beautiful and refined woman, is the awakening of his arousal by a particular scene when he was twelve and how the desire evolves over the next decade his life. The changes in his life cause his fetish to change and the pursuit of his fetish changes his ambitions in life, and the author suggests that it is the latter half prompted the actions that would be recorded in the official histories. He concludes by saying that the Lord of Musashi continued seeking a sexual partner who would satisfy his bizarre stimulus after the events in the historical novel, but declines to continue the account because it would detract from how the lord is perceived. Further, in this novel about outlandish sexual proclivities, there is no sex, though, as a warning for the squeamish, there are a few violent episodes. The point of the story–as in historical accounts–is to explain how some state came to be. The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is not a tabloid tell-all, but is meant to explain how this man was able to bring about peace, with the explanation to be found in his thwarted desire.

The Secret History was a good book, but it also felt to me as though it was a quality addition to a genre rather than a brilliant original piece of literature. The faint praise here may also stem from my limited experience with Japanese fiction and culture, thereby rendering a deep appreciation for the cultural messages impossible. I enjoyed The Secret History well enough that I am going to read another of Tanizaki’s novels, Arrowroot that was translated in the same edition. Anthony Chambers’ translation was smooth and clear and the prose was measured and subtle, but there was also no one aspect of the novel that jumped out as exceptional. For all the adjectives that could be used to describe the story–graceful, elegant, subtle, funny, etc–it is not a book I would emphatically demand people read, but it is one that has my recommendation. As noted above, this was a quick read, only about 130 pages, and if there is anyone looking for something relatively short to read over a weekend, you could do much worse than The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.


[1] The Greek title is merely anecdota, or “unpublished things.”

[2] This information is in the translator’s prologue. Tanizaki published The Secret History some seven years after his translation.