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.