Reading List – February

February 27th, 2008

This one starts with an apology.


Last month I was dismissive of Pyres by Derek Nikitas. I said it was suffocating and that I couldn’t like any of the characters, and I gave it two stars. I also said that it was very well written, and the quality of the writing made me bring it with me to Asia so I could take another look, which I’ve just finished.

I was wrong about Pyres. Any reaction to a book, even those as half-assed as the ones I put here, is of course as much about the reviewer it is about the book, and last month I should have been reading Dr. Seuss. I was doing a difficult edit on Bad Money, I was trying to get my feet under me on the third Bangkok novel, and I was moving. Pyres was an intense addition to a life that didn’t actually require any more intensity, thank you. So now I’ve re-read it, and it might as well be a different book.


It’s still intense – at times almost unbearably so – and it contains sequences that make me feel as I did when I saw “Deliverance” for the first time, that the characters would do anything to get out of their situation, so why am I sitting here instead of leaving? But all that just speaks to the power of the writing. Pyres is a terrific novel, a real heart-breaker of a book.


My second reading made me think about junking the “stars” I assign to books – giving Pyres two stars was clearly abberational. But the stars are obviously (I hope) not an attempt to assign any kind of absolute value to a book, which is pretty much impossible to do anyway; they’re a shorthand indication of how much I enjoyed it.


So Pyres, as read by the new and improved me, gets four stars.


The rest of the month was a mixed bag, as all of them are.


Pictures From an Institution, Randall Jarrell, 5 stars: I’ve probably given eight or ten copies of this book to friends, and this is my fourth or fifth reading. Set in the smug, comfortable, insular world of a “progressive” women’s college where art is seen mainly in terms of its therapeutic value to the students who attempt to create it, Pictures From an Institution describes the shattering impact of a comet, in the person of a genuine artist, a vituperative female novelist named Gertrude Johnson. Gertrude (who was allegedly based on the acerbic Mary McCarthy) invades the life of Benton College with her bug net and killing jar in hand, ruthlessly collecting Material for her next book. This is the only novel Jarrell wrote, unfortunately. One of America’s premier 20th-century poets, he spent most of his professional life in academia and knew every tortuous corridor. To me, Pictures From an Institution is one of the best American books about college life and, along with Richard Russo’s The Straight Man, certainly the funniest. Reading this novel (and especially its breathtakingly optimistic conclusion), it’s almost impossible to believe that Jarrell committed suicide. By the way, his frame of reference will probably make you feel semi-literate, but read it anyway.


No Other Book, Randall Jarrell, 4.5 stars: Jarrell was also one of the last century’s most influential critics. This collection is worth reading for the purity and clarity of his prose and for the sheer pleasure of watching a first-class mind at work on first-class material. Like all great criticism, it holds up art as a mirror of the world that produced it, and tells us as much about the world as it does about the art. The absolutely brilliant essays on Robert Frost are rich enough to be read over three or four days, just a few paragraphs at a time. The introductory piece, taken from a speech about the “obscurity”of modern poets and the decline of the influence of poetry in American life, contains insights that are still reverberating in my head as though someone struck a gong in my forebrain.


Quiller Barracuda, Adam Hall, 2 stars: I remember how I devoured the Quiller books, back in the 80s and 90s, when they were touted as equal or superior to LeCarre and Deighton. I picked this one up in a backpacker’s bookstore in Bangkok and read it with the kind of muted dismay one sometimes feels at a high school reunion: if everyone else looks this bad, what does it say about me? This is pretty much nonsense, an over-adrenalized, laughably improbable farrago about a group of international industrialists plotting (honest) to put their robot presidential candidate into the White House and then sell (yes, sell) the USA to the Soviet Union. Ummmm . . . . And all of it in a sort of clenched-teeth prose (Hall’s Quiller, in whose first-person narrative the book is told, keeps addressing the reader as “my good friend”) that has the kind of wee-willie urgency I equate with really, really having to go to the bathroom when the seat belt sign is turned on. Oh, yeah, and behind all of it is the assumption we all accepted during that wave of spy fiction: that Great Britain was the world’s secret superpower. By the way, “Barracuda” is the four-testicle name of the mission Quiller is on, and who names these things, anyway? “Operation Rolling Thunder,” “Operation Shock and Awe”: When will we see Operation Featherduster or Operation Regrettably Noisy? I could get behind Operation Regrettably Noisy.


The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett, 4 stars: After a wildly successful series of best-selling thrillers and nonfiction that reads like fiction, Follett unexpectedly turned his hand to the middle ages – 600 or so pages of the middle ages. The book is ostensibly about the construction of a cathedral, but what it’s really about is the skilled construction of a melodrama, the conflict between the good and the bad; and the bad are real black-hatters, the kind of guys who would buy a dog just to kick it, the kind of guys who mark Thursdays on their calendars for RAPE and Fridays for PILLAGE the way some of us might devote Mondays to bowling. The setting is marvelously detailed, the prose is suitably transparent – it presents the action vividly while staying out of its way – and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Enough so that the sequel (I think), World Without End, is going woo-hoo at me from my TBR shelf right now.

Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe, Simon Singh, 5 stars: This is science writing at its very best, a masterful review of cosmological theory over the centuries, beginning with a collection of creation myths from all over the world and ending with the spectacularly odd universe of today, with its dark matter, singularities, Great Attractors, multiple dimensions, and, everywhere throughout the skies, the low-level background sizzle that is the lingering echo of the Big Bang. Singh is more than equal to his task. His language is beautifully clear. He manages to hint at the depth of the deepest waters (and some are very deep indeed) without making the reader feel like a bonehead. Here’s one of the several thousand things I learned from this book. The sun converts 584 million tons of hydrogen into 580 million tons of helium every second of every day and the four million tons of missing matter are converted (e=mc2, remember?) into the sunlight that sparkles on the oceans, makes plants grow, and is broken down into rainbows. Every second. And the sun is not a very big star.

I know I’m early with this, but remember, I’m almost a full day ahead of you, at least those of you who live in North America.

9 Responses to “Reading List – February”

  1. Sphinx Ink Says:

    Tim, you never cease to amaze me–with all you had going on last month, you still managed to get in some quality reading. Renaissance man, are you? By the way, I do love your turns of phrases–“wee-willie urgency” is great!

  2. greg smith Says:

    You really are ahead of our time this month. How do you fit it all in? Wormholes instead of 747s?
    The reviews were poignant and very entertaining. I especially liked the Quiller Barracuda comments and your alternatives for those comic strip crash, bang monikers they hang on military operations: Regrettably Noisy was a beaut but possibly more apropos the War on Flatulence.
    Please keep it flowing; It’s not only fun but hugely inspiring to see how much a body can get done, even in a 29 day month.

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Elora, Greg — Reading is just an addiction for me. I wake up and read; I read whenever I have downtime, even if it’s only ten minutes, and I read in bed every night. And I read all sorts of stuff.

    By the way, the thing about how four tons of hydrogen becomes sunlight found its way into the new Poke book today. Might even stay there.

    Thanks for the kind words, both of you.

  4. Lisa Kenney Says:

    This is the most list of books for one month of reading material I think I’ve ever seen. You’re just incredible and I agree with the praise for your reviews. I don’t know where you come up with them, but your descriptions are real gems:

    “…the kind of guys who would buy a dog just to kick it, the kind of guys who mark Thursdays on their calendars for RAPE and Fridays for PILLAGE the way some of us might devote Mondays to bowling”

    Hope you’re back in your groove!

  5. Derek Nikitas Says:

    Tim, you’re a real gentleman–and no need to apologize. The book IS suffocating, that’s for sure! Just imagine having written it! Still, I’m just glad to hear the book ended up haunting you a bit, growing on you, as it were. That’s all I could ask for. I see *A Nail Through The Heart* every time I go to the bookstore–very prominently placed. I’ve always been enticed by the title and the cover, and now that I know the guy who wrote it is a standup guy (not to mention a fan of Randall Jarell, good bud of my favorite poet John Berryman) I’m very eager to pick it up next time I go!

  6. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Ahem — I meant to say, “This is the most diverse list of books for one month of reading material I think I’ve ever seen.”

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Derek Nikitas, for those of you who didn’t read the mea culpa at the beginning of this post, is the author of “Pyres,” and while I’m extremely happy to hear from him, I’m also horrified to know he read the January reading list in which I was so unkind to his book. Sorry, Derek — I really had no business reacting to anything at all last month. And for those of you who aren’t Derek, read “Pyres.” And I had no idea Jarrell and Berryman were friends. But Jarrell knocks me out — the novel, the poetry, the criticism. Unthinkable to me that he was a suicide.

    Hi, Lisa — Ahem accepted; I actually thought that’s what you HAD written. After I got this note I had to go back and look. I sort of read everything except Stuart Woods. (Just kidding, Stuart!)

  8. Steve Wylder Says:

    I’ve read some of Jarrell’s poetry. As someone who more than occasionally suffers from depression, I’ve stayed away from his work if only to avoid another bleak mood. I’ve never read any of his prose. Maybe when my Dickens Challenge novel is done…

    As for Stuart Woods, I read “Santa Fe Rules” a few years ago, mainly becuase I had lived in New Mexico for several years. After reading that rather insipid male fantasy, I swore off Woods. Was I wrong to judge him by that one book?

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Steve —

    I think Jarrell’s depression was confined to the last year or two (or three) of his life. And certainly, it doesn’t make an appearance in “Pictures from an Institution,” which is one of the sanest books I ever read, and which ends with a scene that thrilled me to my toes the first time I ever read it, and which still affects me now, all these readings later.

    As for Stuart Woods, I’m actually with you.

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