Book Notes I

I wrote one of these a long time ago, intending it to be a regular thing, and here I am again, trying to make it a regular thing, to fill the gaps when I’ve got nothing else to say and, hopefully, to help me think more deeply about what I’m reading.

Recently Finished

  • The Civil War, Vol. 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville, The Civil War, Vol. 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian, and The Civil War, Vol. 3: Red River to Appomattox by Shelby Foote (A)
    • A massive, almost 3000 pages spread across three volumes, narrative history of the Civil War. I found it consistently engaging, which is saying a lot considering the sheer length of it all. After a while, Foote’s stylistic tendencies do start to wear a bit thin. You won’t believe how many counter-attacks are “savage” how many “air-line miles” point X is away from point Y, or just how many times Foote can refer to a general by his nickname rather than his actual name, but I ultimately found them more endearing than frustrating.
    • I should note that it’s a work of old-fashioned military history, with very little attention given to the social dimension of the war and the political only considered insofar as it had bearing on the military (I say this as someone who sees nothing at all wrong with this sort of history, but it’s best to identify precisely what sort of book we’re talking about). Also, I’m guessing that if you have a deep familiarity with the conflict, that it would be too broad for your taste. As someone who came in with only a rudimentary and, as I learned, fragmentary grasp of the war between the states, I thought it was an excellent survey, that I’d recommend to anyone in a similar position who wishes to get a firm grasp on the big picture.
  • The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (B)
    • I’m torn on my rating here, because it’s really an excellent collection of Greek poetry. However, I didn’t really enjoy reading it, for reasons which are almost entirely personal. The first, tying into why I purchased the book in the first place, is that the Oxford Book of English Verse is my favorite collection of poetry, the reading of which occupied me for almost a full year and which introduced me to a host of new authors, shaping my poetry reading going forward. Unfairly, ‘ve penalized this book because it’s not as good as my favorite. Second, keeping with the theme of how my own approach to the book limited my enjoyment, I raced through this one much faster and in a much more scattershot fashion. I just couldn’t seem to get rolling, or to take my time, and that’s never going to help appreciate poetry. Third, a large swathe of the collection consists in excerpts from longer works, The Iliad, Theogony, the plays of Aeschylus, etc. that I’m already familiar with. I love many of these, but was less interested in experiencing them in small bits, and was more interested in becoming familiar with a broader range of authors. Unfortunately, I felt these longer excerpts overpowered the collection. Finally, I think I just enjoy Greek poetry less than English. Maybe it’s artifacts of translation, maybe it’s the aforementioned familiarity with the heavy-hitters, but I didn’t find much new that captured my attention. So, great for what it is, but what it is was not what I wanted.
  • The Burnt Orange Heresy by Charles Willeford (B)
    • A solid enough noir novel, with less actual crime than most (including the author’s own Miami Blues, which I enjoyed more). There’s some amusing satire on the art world, and, as is often the case with noir, it’s amusing enough to spend some time in the mind of the protagonist who is, to put it lightly, a real prick, pretentious, amoral, repulsive. Everything is fairly low-stakes, though not in an enjoyably grubby sort of way, and not much actually happens in the end, so the whole thing is ultimately rather skippable, but I am intrigued enough by this and the aforementioned Miami Blues to read more Willeford. He’s certainly got talent, and you get the sense that he could definitely write something more gripping, though I worry that my relationship to him might ultimately be the same as to Elmore Leonard, where I read a number of his books, like a good deal of what’s in them, but am never truly captivated, always feeling like he just doesn’t quite get over the hump.
  • Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne (C)
    • Disappointing. The book felt rushed, like scenes weren’t given time to breathe, which was in keeping with the “breakneck race around the world” idea, but wasn’t all that enjoyable as an adventure novel. I’ve only read one Jules Verne book in the past…two decades, at least, the others being half remembered, and possibly from abridged, versions that I’m pretty sure my dad read to me when I was around seven, but I remembered there being more to it than this. It often read like a travel guide, a sort of whirlwind tour that maybe would get you interested in some region, but on its own just didn’t have much substance. Consequently, I have a hard time recommending the book, despite it’s status as a classic. Also, why do all the illustrated editions so prominently feature a balloon, when that’s (practically) the one sort of conveyance that the protagonists don’t use in their journey? odd.
  • The Unknown Masterpiece by Honore de Balzac (A)
    • Balzac is such a strange author. Here’s what I wrote about him a few years ago:
      • On the surface there’s nothing I can point to in his works that I find especially amazing. Indeed, there are a number of times when his prose seems outright bad, where the plots feel rushed, where I lose my grip on his characters (I worried that this was an artifact of translation, but see that others have complained about it too). Nevertheless, his books are utterly captivating. Below the prose, somehow not contained within the words themselves but lying behind them, is a raw, vital energy. His books, and the people within them, are alive.
    • The Unknown Masterpiece, which was the first Balzac I read, is no exception. It’s a story about art, about an artist relentlessly seeking perfection so relentlessly, so maniacally, that they end up with just a swirl of color, not a masterpiece, but obscurity. There’s some interesting crossover with The Burnt Orange Heresy and, in a book I re-read recently, The Drawing of the Dark, with all three taking different angles on the artist whose creative impulse drives them to a sort of muteness.
    • Anyway, it’s a good story, maybe even a great one.

Master Book List

One response to “Book Notes I”

  1. […] a previous set of book notes when I […]

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