Thursday, June 28, 2007

More reading

I'm playing hooky today. Just sort of seemed the thing to do -- I woke up, reflected that I really didn't feel like going into the office, then remembered that I didn't have to.

Which rates in my top ten reasons why I love my job.

Well, I'm not totally playing hooky -- just changing the scenery. I spent the morning having my coffee in the living room and reading, and I'm heading downtown momentarily to have lunch and camp out in a coffee shop with my ever-so-slowly evolving Rome article. But it also occurred to me that I hadn't updated my blog in over a week, so here I am. Time to update the "recent reads."

Last summer when Kristen and I were driving from Ontario to St. John's, we listened to Isabel Allende's most recent novel, Zorro, on CD. Lately I'd found myself recalling parts of it I enjoyed. Not really wanting to listen to the twenty-odd hours of its reading, I bought the book and re-read it ... or read it for the first time, I guess.

First of all, I just want to say that if you've never read anything by Allende, you are missing out. A Chilean novelist (actually the niece of Salvador Allende, whose assassination by Augusto Pinochet precipated that dictator's brutal seventeen-year reign), she writes in the manner of such magical realists as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes; her first novel The House of the Spirits (1981) is breathtakingly beautiful in its scope and texture, telling the story of Chile's transition into the twentieth century by way of four generations of the patrician Trueba family.

If you're like me and a fan of the Zorro stories, the combination of those overstated adventures and Allende's gift for storytelling will be stunning. Even if you're lukewarm on the whole Zorro saga, it remains a beautiful novel. It gives us the prehistory of Diego de la Vega, aka Zorro ("The Fox"), from the meeting of his parents in Alta California through his childhood growing up as the child of an hidalgo gentleman, to his education in Barcelona, where the alter ego of Zorro first makes its appearance. It's sort of a Batman Begins for Zorro, but one that takes in a great swathe of American and European history and is set in the context of the political and religious upheavals taking place at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Allende paints a gorgeous historical landscape, and we encounter cameos with some great historical luminaries.

I'm currently about halfway through Jonathan Schell's reconsideration of "power, nonviolence, and the will of the people" (as it says in the subtitle), The Unconquerable World. I've been reading it in fits and starts, which is odd, because every time I pick it up I'm rapt. Schell, a journalist and public intellectual, looks at how warfare has evolved in the modern age and makes the argument (or I think he does -- I'm only halfway in) that nonviolent resistance ultimately has more traction and efficacy than does violent revolution in the modern moment. This book is no pacifist tract: his military history is spot-on, and the first third of the book is a brilliant reading of Carl von Clausewitz's pivotal text On War. Schell tracks the changes in military convention through the industrial revolution and points to the rise, on one hand, of the impervious military juggernaut (the British Empire, the current American military, e.g.) and the rise of the "people's army" (Spanish partisans in the Penninsular War, the Viet Cong, etc) on the other, and the incommensurability of the two. The former can never be defeated militarily by the latter; the latter can never be defeated politically by the former ... a situation we see getting played out all too obviously in Iraq right now.

I'll comment again on this book when I've finished it; suffice it to say that Schell's arguments are compelling and his prose is amazingly lucid. For all the complexity of his argument and depth of his analyses, the book reads very smoothly.

As should be obvious from my many posts on the subject (such as the one just above), in the parallel universe in which I'm still an academic, I'm a military historian -- something that manifests itself in this life as a mania for books of military history and, even more glaringly, a love for historical novels. I'm a devoted reader of all of Bernard Cornwell's various series (especially the Sharpe novels), as well as George MacDonald Fraser's brilliant funny Flashman series. And I've recently started what is perhaps the most loved of British military novels: C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower books. I'm now three deep into the eleven-book series ... having dispatched Midshipman Hornblower and Lieutenant Hornblower, I'm now in the final pages of Hornblower and the Hotspur. What I love about these novels -- which is the same thing I love about Cornwell's -- is the attention to detail, the accuracy of the representation not even so much of the historical sequences and context as the minutiae ... the attention paid to the day-to-day necessities of life aboard ship, the near-slavery of being a sailor in His Majesty's Navy -- from the captain down to the lowliest seaman. And as a sailor myself, I especially love the language of seagoing, the shipboard terminology and the nautical details. It makes me want to be aboard a ship -- though preferably one in which I wouldn't have to dine on salt beef and weevil-infested biscuits.

1 comment:

Robyn Paterson said...

Having similarly discovered Hornblower a little over two years ago, I can't support your reading choice enough. The Hornblower books turned this inland boy into a wannabe sailor as fast as you could say "Mr. Bush, set a course..." I read the first one out of casual interest, and then couldn't get enough.

On a similar vein, if you haven't already, Patrick O'Brian's work is also something that can't be missed. His Aubrey/Maturin novels are right up there with the best things every written. It's a shame the Master and Commander movie was such a poor adaption and turned so many people off from reading them.