2002: 3rd Quarter [24]

Frayn, Michael. Headlong. NY: Metropolitan Book, 1999.

Martin Clay is a young academic philosopher who goes off to the country with his wife (an academic art historian) and infant daughter so they can both work on their current books. The local land-poor squire, an ignorant boor who beats his wife, tries to get a free valuation of some family pictures from them and Martin discovers what he believes to be a long-lost Bruegel — a find that not only would make his career but would be worth several million pounds. Naturally, he has to possess it. And that draws him into a convoluted scheme to con his neighbor out of the unrecognized masterpiece . . . for the painting’s own good, of course. That’s the surface story, and a very entertaining sort of bedroom farce it is. But Martin’s wife, an iconographer who hasn’t seen the picture, doesn’t for a moment believe it could be what he thinks it is, so Martin must research the attribution — a quest that takes him and us through the ins and outs of 16th century Dutch and Spanish politics, the Reformation and the Catholic counterattack, and the possible personal trials of the painter himself. I “read” this one on a recent trip via audiobook, read by British actor Robert Powell, and it may be one of those few books that’s better listened to than read. Though my art background is minimal, I found the scholarly detective work and Martin’s thought processes absorbing. And when I took this back to the library, I immediately went looking for the Bruegel books. (9/30/02)

Salinger, J. D. Nine Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.

I first read this collection in high school, about 1960, and I may have been the only one in my Contemporary Lit class who didn’t regard the author as an unqualified genius. I decided forty years was long enough to wait before re-reading it . . . and while, with more education and a lot more “life experience” under my belt, I certainly appreciate these stories more than I did then, I’m still not really in love with Salinger. Especially “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which everyone seems to regard as the perfect modern American short story — sorry, it doesn’t do a thing for me. Seymour is just rather pathetic, I think, not tragic. On the other hand, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” and “For Esme — with Love and Squalor” are beautifully done character portraits. And “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” is flat falling-down funny. The others fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum for me. Salinger certainly has a knack for dialogue, though some of the conversations in these stories seem funny now simply because they’re written in fifty-year-old idiom. And, of course, nineteen-year-old characters then seem far more naive than fifteen-year-olds of today. But even making those allowances, for modern short fiction, I consider William Trevor, Ellen Gilchrist, and Frederick Barthelme to be far more talented. (9/26/02)

Berger, Warren. Advertising Today. NY: Phaidon, 2001.

Hardly anyone outside the industry itself has a high opinion of advertising, and I’m probably no different — most of the time. However, I’ve long appreciated the occasional high degree of originality and wit of which ad writers and artists have shown themselves capable, especially since the late 1950s. This fat volume brings all of them together, beginning with Volkwagen’s groundbreaking “Think Small” campaign. There are chapters on the influence of European copywriting on American ads, the development of a new “visual language,” the rise of backhanded “oddvertising,” the growth of advertising as a reflection of (and finally an agent of) social change, and the advent of guerilla anti-advertising, each of them an entertaining and instructive mix of graphics and text. There’s even a separate chapter on the ups and downs of the famous and long-running “Got Milk?” campaign. This gorgeous book will keep you studying the artwork and reading the discussions far into the night. (9/18/02)

Bear, Greg. Moving Mars. NY: Tor, 1993.

A desert planet with an ancient history of very un-Earth-like life, a frontier world that mixes social conservatism and radical experimentation, this is Mars in the late 22nd century. Casseia Majumdar is, she thinks, an ordinary person just trying to find her niche in life, beginning with student rebellion against Statism and progressing through her emergence as a key leader in a redesigned Martian political system. Parallelling her own development is the rise of Charles Franklin, her first lover and theoretical physicist extraordinaire. In its theme and style, this story reminds me most of John Varley’s Steel Beach and Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress — but while it has all the exciting detail and deep, rich texture of the former, it’s far more subtle and sophisticated than anything Heinlein ever managed. The feel of the world’s overwhelming strangeness and almost unimaginable complexity 175 years from now is accomplished very smoothly, almost sneakily, without ever overexplaining things. The physics “feels” right. And the characterization is always spot-on. And the title of this thing should be taken literally. Putting it simply and baldly, this is a perfectly marvelous book. It is by far the best thing of Bear’s I’ve read and it’s one of the best sf novels I’ve read by anyone in several years. (9/16/02)

Bohnaker, William. The Hollow Doll: A Little Box of Japanese Shocks. NY: Ballantine, 1990.

The Japanese aren’t like you think they are. As Bohnaker so thoroughly demonstrates, they aren’t even like they think they are. The essential European (and therefore American) mind-set is rational, based on ancient Greece, Rome, the Medieval Church, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Westerners ask “why?” The Japanese share none of that history and depend instead on pattern, and especially formula. They ask “what?” For society to work, everyone simply has to behave the same way, every time, in the expected fashion. The famous Japanese consensus is not a rational principal, “wisely deduced from the need to produce cooperative action” — that’s a Western extrapolation. Where society in the West is supported by an internal structure of reason and principal, what he calls the Japanese social psyche is held together by a “bubble of agreement supported by nothing but itself.” And who decides what people should agree to? Tradition and authority, more often than not. American soldiers were baffled at the end of World War II when the “maniacal” Japanese simply ceased fighting, virtually overnight, and became polite and friendly. But they quit because the Emperor told them to, just as they had previously fought tooth and nail because the generals told them to. Of course, those in authority — political leaders, the corporate boss — frequently take advantage of this mind-set for their own ends. The author examines the Japanese educational system, the attitude toward public drunkenness, the real reason behind anarchic driving behavior (inability to identify authority), and the casual racism endemic in Japan, and a great deal more. However, when this book was published in 1990, as a result of years of a strong yen and much wider exposure to Western ways of doing things, the Japanese, especially the younger generation and the women, were beginning to resist their own traditions. Japan’s society is rapidly becoming much more Westernized. It would be very interesting if Bohnaker were to write a follow-up volume a decade later, now that Japan has suffered serious economic setbacks. (9/07/02)

Mitchell, Kirk. Ancient Ones. NY: Bantam Books, 2001.

This third novel in the series about BIA criminal investigator Emmett Parker, a Comanche, and FBI agent Anna Turnipseed, a Modoc, doesn’t seem nearly as well organized as the first two. There are also unexplained overtones of supernatural involvement which grate, compared to the thoroughly realistic treatment of events in their earlier cases. This time, they’re off to Oregon to “keep the peace” during the brouhaha that follows the discovery of what is apparently a Caucasoid skeleton nearly 15,000 years old. This has major political implications for the rights of Native Americans as “original inhabitants,” and the scientific community isn’t happy about the pressure put on by the Warm Springs Reservation for immediate reburial of the remains. Thaddeus Rankin, renowned anthropologist, has his own cultural and political agenda. And underlying everything is the tension between Emmett and Anna as they try to get their personal relationship off the ground. Some of this is well handled, especially the true causes of Rankin’s medical condition, but Mitchell also seems perfectly happy with the antiscientific superstition and politically correct religious bigotry behind NAGPRA — the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. (I’m sure my own biases are showing there. . . .) (9/04/02)

Tasker, Peter. Buddha Kiss. NY: Doubleday, 1997.

I was a bit confused for the first couple of chapters of this galloping mystery, but then I realized that the principal characters were confused, too. There are three main proponents: Richard Mitchell, semi-novice financier from Yorkshire who has relocated to Tokyo to seek his fortune, Kazuo Mori, hard-boiled private detective (or “economic and social researcher”), who takes on a case involing the mysterious death of and old friend’s daughter, and Tamura, assistant manager of one of the most important branches of one of Japan’s most important banks, who wakes to find himself in a love hotel with the corpse of an attractive young woman. There are several memorable nemesises, too: Yazawa, the financial whiz-kid who drives Mitchell on with his unpredictable style, Ono, founder and godhead of a new cult, who seems to be behind the deaths of several of his female followers, and “Snowbird,” a warped but very professional yakuza. As the several threads begin to draw closer together, and as you begin to discern what the real threats are, you’ll find yourself staying up late to finish the book. Tasker is himself an English financier resident in Japan, and he writes with authoritative knowledge of both those worlds, so the story resonates with verisimilitude. Nor was I distracted by the “foreignness” of the world the author, and the characters, so ably move in. (9/01/02)

Mitchell, Kirk. Spirit Sickness. NY: Bantam, 2000.

Emmett Parker of the BIA and Anna Turnipseed of the FBI are back, this time investigating the murder of a Navajo police officer and his wife on the Big Rez. What they expect to be a straightforward investigation quickly becomes far more complicated and the twists and turns of the plot will force you to pay attention. The slowly growing relationship between Emmett and Anna is also being nicely developed in multiple dimensions. And she certainly seems to be getting whacked around a lot for a relative rookie. But I’m definitely looking forward to the next in this series. (8/22/02)

Kadrey, Richard. From Myst to Riven: The Creations & Inspirations. NY: Hyperion, 1997.

Most computer games don’t much for me. I’m not into shoot-’em-ups, and I learned back in the days of the original ADVENTURE and ZORK that I wasn’t that great at puzzle-solving. Oh the other hand, I’ve been playing MYST and RIVEN regularly for years, even though I haven’t solved that many of the puzzles. I’m what this author calls a “tourist,” a player who just likes to wander about the Ages of these games and gawk at the exquisite artwork and music, and marvel at the fantastic realism the design team has managed to put into their worlds. This book brings all that out in some detail, describing how Rand and Robyn Miller came up with the basic ideas, how Richard Vander Wende turned all their plans on their heads and made the game the masterpiece that it is, how even the sounds you hear are apt to be clues (I never knew that!), and — above all — how none of the team let themselves be hurried in their quest for something as close to perfection as they could manage. Like Tolkien, they even invented a detailed language for the D’ni. Amazing stuff. (8/19/02)

Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids. NY: Tor, 2002.

Almost every science fiction reader has experience with alternate world stories — plots in which things happened differently than in our own history because of some event, usually trivial, that went another way. Sawyer postulates a truly far-reaching point-of-divergence — the rise to intelligence of Homo neanderthalensis instead of Homo sapiens. What’s more, he makes a pretty good case for the physics behind his parallel worlds. It all starts in a deep nickel mine in northern Ontario which in our world is a neutrino observation lab and in the alternate Neanderthal world is a quantum computer lab. Ponter Boddit, physicist in that other world, falls through into our own world quite by accident, and the story is off and running. Because not only does Ponter have to figure out this world (and we have to accept what he is), his co-worker and house-mate, Adikor Huld, finds himself accused of murdering Ponter, who has mysteriously disappeared from their world. Sawyer is very good at thinking of all the problems and questions a reader is likely to raise and answering them satisfactorily — in terms of the story, that is, though most of his speculations, even, seem like reasonably good science. He describes an internally consistent Neanderthal world, in which the Agricultural Revolution never took place and so the world’s population is far smaller and more dispersed, which also means disease is much less prevalent. Because males and females live separate lives most of the time, nearly all individuals have both a man-mate and a woman-mate, one for affection and companionship, the other also for procreation. Menstruation occurs for all females at once, always on the same schedule, and children are born in planned generations, once every ten years. And, as one would expect, the Neanderthal world is more advanced in some ways than ours, and vice versa — which also gives the author the opportunity to let us look at our own world through the eyes of an intelligent and sophisticated but mostly alien being. In fact, I expect there to be a backlash against this book by the Religious Right, because Ponter has some forthright things to say about the nature and effect of religion in our world — an unnecessary psychological tension his world has been spared. As always, Sawyer also develops fully realized characters, with some cogent comments on the nature of intelligence, love, violence, and interpersonal relationships. Happily, this is only the first volume of a trilogy, and I’ll be looking forward eagerly to the next volume. (8/18/02)

Egan, Greg. Schild’s Ladder. NY: HarperCollins, 2002.

It’s very difficult to write a science fiction novel that’s both good fiction and good science, especially for us social sciences and humanities types. Physicists usually don’t make good novelists, and vice versa. But there are exceptions and Egan is one of them. His latest is set some 20,000 years in our future, a universe in which death is only “local” because everyone backs themselves up regularly, in which you might or might not choose to have a body, in which gender has ceased to have any meaningful role in human affairs. Most people still prefer to remain on whatever planet they were born on, but some become travelers, and Tchicaya is one of those — 4,000+ years old, rootless, a generalist. Six hundred years before, a “quantum graph” experiment went awry and a region of peculiar vacuum was created that has been expanding at half-light-speed ever since, swallowing up solar systems whose inhabitants have been forced to evacuate. But there’s a ship filled with scientists staying just a little ahead of the expanding front, studying the novo-vacuum’s effect and looking for a way to control it. Tchicaya joins the company on the ship, who have divided into two political-philosophical groups; he’s part of the group called Yielders, who want to continue to study the novo-vacuum, as opposed to the Preservationists, who want to destroy it to prevent it from continuing to destroy them. And then a small radical faction takes action on its own. You’d think choosing sides in such a dichotomy would be a no-brainer, but Egan makes an excellent case for a truly civilized approach to the universe. The science and math is thick and sometimes heavy, but he manages not only to make it palatable but also enthralling. (8/16/02)

Block, Lawrence. The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza. NY: Dutton, 1980.

Block has several series going, but the adventures of Bernie Rhodenbarr are probably my favorite, even more than John Keller, the hit man. Bernie is a retired burglar turned used bookseller. Well, not retired, really. Just more circumspect. And even if he could actually earn a living selling books (if he tried harder, as he admits to himself), he still couldn’t do without the visceral charge he gets every time he illegally enters someone else’s private property. He’s a nice guy, though. If you had to pick a professional criminal to become friends with, he’d be the one. He’s also decidedly nonviolent and a very droll character. This time, accompanied by his lesbian best friend, Carolyn the dog groomer, he knocks over a carriage house while the occupants are out of town only to discover the place has already been (ineptly) burgled. Then an ordinary B&E escalates into a multiple murder and the cops like Bernie for it, so he has to uncover the real murderers. Like Block, Bernie is a through-and-through New Yorker and his descriptions of his comings and goings and his take on other denizens of his city just add to the fun. And the mystery itself is pretty good, too. (8/11/02)

Gould, Steven C. Jumper. NY: Tor, 1992.

Davy Rice is a pretty ordinary seventeen-year-old kid from a small town in Ohio, and — considering that he has an abusive, alcoholic father — he’s a nice guy, conscientious and level-headed. Except that he can teleport to anyplace he’s visited before. He runs away to New York City but can’t get a job without Social Security or an ID, which he can’t get without a birth certificate, which he doesn’t have. Finally, in desperation, he dips into nonviolent criminality — only once, but it’s enough to hold him for a long, long time. Then he meets Milly, an Oklahoma college student on a vist to the Big City, and his life changes, and not always for the better. You can’t help but be on Davy’s side, cheering when he figures out how to revenge himself on those who have hurt him without actually killing anyone, and holding your breath when the National Security Agency takes an interest. Gould takes the time to really examine what possession of such an ability would mean to a thoughtful person and his smooth, transparent style is very nice. This was his first novel and it’s a winner. (8/08/02)

Gaiman, Neil. The Doll’s House (Sandman, vol. 2). NY: DC Comics, 1995.

I enjoy some graphic novels — not the standard “Marvel” type but those with original content and approach, and Gaiman is about as original as they come. This is the first of the “Sandman” series I’ve read and I was quite taken with both the story and the art, though it seems to suffer (as so many graphic novels do) from narrative discontinuity. The Prologue, “Tales in the Sand” is a memorable retelling of what purports to be an African tribal legend, “Collectors” is a terror tale that will jangle your nerves, and the six centuries of “Men of Good Fortune” is worth the price of admission all by itself. (8/06/02)

Connelly, Michael. Blood Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.

This is the best procedural-type mystery I’ve read in some time. Terry McCaleb used to be an FBI profiler working out of Los Angeles until his heart fell apart on him and he had to get in line for a transplant. Then the new heart comes — but, as he discovers several months later, the donor was murdered. Now the dead woman’s sister wants him to try to find the killer. What seemed to the police like a classic convenience store robbery gone wrong gradually becomes a great deal more as Terry investigates. I like the way Connelly never wastes a paragraph; details the reader might regard as just window-dressing always turn out to be more important than one originally thought. Only the ending doesn’t quite work for me: Is it reasonable for Terry and Graciela to assume young Raymond will really be able to keep his mouth shut about what happened down in Mexico? But otherwise, this is a very well done story. (8/05/08)

Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited. Boston: Little, Brown, 1944.

This is another of those books that has been on my to-read list for years, which people regularly recommended but which I kept pushing down the list . . . probably because I’ve never been particularly pleased with those other works of Waugh’s which I’ve read — superficial and stilted parodies like Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and The Loved One. But Brideshead is, happily, quite different and shows Waugh at what I take to be his best. Charles Ryder, artist and scion of a minor upper class family, is a captain during World War II whose unit is posted to a large estate (Brideshead), a place where he spent some of the happiest, and unhappiest, times of his life back in the early 1920s, when he was at Oxford with Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the wealthy and Catholic Marchmain family. The first part of the book is the story of the rise and fall of the friendship between Ryder and Sebastian, who hates his mother and sinks into alcoholism. The second part, which seems disconnected, is the story of Charles’s success and the collapse of his marriage, and of his tenuous affair with Julia, Sebastian’s sister. And that’s about all the plot there is. But I enjoyed the book mostly for Waugh’s mastery of character evolution, his depiction of the changes in Sebastian’s grasp on the real world and on the growth of Ryder’s cynicism. The supporting characters are fascinating: Sebastian’s eldest brother, Brideshead (a lovely name!); the younger, pious sister, Cordelia; their friends, Anthony Blanche and Boy Mulcaster, who grow from tiresome undergraduates to men occasionally worth listening to; Julia’s Canadian husband, Rex Mottrom; Sebastian’s parents and Charles’s father, and even quite minor figures in the story. There are also some great comic scenes, such as the thoroughly heathenish Rex’s efforts to be converted to Roman Catholicism to please Julia’s family, and Cousin Jasper’s disquisition on how to be a proper Oxford Man. And Waugh’s take on the peculiarities of the Anglo-Catholic world are very good. On the other hand, few of these characters are actually worth the reader’s sympathy; they all have far too much money and the associated freedom to do just as they please, and none of them ever contributes much, if anything, to society at large. (8/02/02)

Lonsdale, Sarah. Japanese Design. London: Carlton Books, 2000.

I’ve long been fascinated by the (to Westerners) strangenesses of Japanese culture and society, and I’m also interested in “life style” design, so I was particularly taken with this book. Each of the beautifully illustrated chapters deals with one aspect of the Japanese approach to the visual — fashion, architecture, interiors, food and drink, transport, consumer products, housewares, communication and packaging, and transport — and the author gives as much attention to the social psyhology behind Japanese traditions and interpretations as to the art and design itself, examining Japan’s communitarian aspects and the tension between colorful individualism and finely developed herd instinct. A terrific book. (7/30/02)

Turtledove, Harry (ed). The Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century. NY: Del Rey, 2001.

This is sort of the companion volume to Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, and it has some of the same problems. There are thirteen stories in this collection, including some that are quite good, but are these really the “best”? Gregory Benford’s “To the Storming Gulf” is particularly weak, especially the last section, and “Wolf Time” is far from Walter Jon Williams’s best. Poul Anderson’s “Among Thieves” is a true classic, though, as are “The Game of Rat and Dragon,” by Cordwainer Smith, and Phil Dick’s “Second Variety.” As in the Alternate History volume, Turtledove seems to have difficulty with his definitions. “Wolf Time” is about an assassin, not warfare. George R. R. Martin’s “Night of the Vampyres” is about political revolution with an only vaguely military element. And I can’t see classifying McCaffrey’s “Dragonrider” as military fiction at all. Finally (also as in the other volume), there are several novelette-length pieces — Joe Haldeman’s “Hero” (which became The Forever War), Card’s “Ender’s Game” (which also became a novel), McCaffrey’s “Dragonrider” (ditto), and C. J. Cherryh’s “The Scapegoat” — which should have been omitted in favor of twice that many additional short stories. This anthology could have been much better. (7/29/02)

Fischer, David Hackett & James C. Kelly. Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Fischer wrote Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, which is one of the best works published in several decades in comparative and local U.S. history, and in many ways this is a continuation of the “Virginia” section of that book. Which is a bit surprising, since the author is a New Englander and previously showed considerable preference for the folkways of Massachusetts over those in the South. Since I have numerous forebears in Virginia, I was particularly interested in the first three chapters: “Migration to Virginia,” “Migration in Virginia,” and “Migration beyond Virginia.” All of those apply to my people and Fischer’s coverage of the in-through-and-out process is first-rate. As before, he’s an old-fashioned historian, spending a lot of time describing the concrete experiences of particular individuals and families, not spinning out historiographical theory. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Virginia’s first couple of centuries. (7/27/02)

Turtledove, Harry (ed.). The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century. NY: Del Rey, 2001.

I guess I’m too avid a reader of “alternate history” to expect to find anything in an anthology of previously-published stories I haven’t read several times before, and that’s the case here. But are these the “best”? Yeah, some of them. Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Lucky Strike” certainly is, and so is “Moon of Ice” by Brad Linaweaver, and Jack Chalker’s “Dance Band on the Titanic” is one of my favorites. But Susan Schwartz’s “Suppose They Gave a Peace,” while it’s a very good story, was published less than a year before this book was compiled, which simply isn’t enough time for any story to become a “classic.” Others really don’t seem to fit the theme: Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways” is an exercise in philosophy/psychology in which alternate history plays only a small, background role. “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” by Bruce Sterling and Lew Shiner, while also a good story, is time travel, not alternate history, and Allan Steele’s “The Death of Captain Future” has nothing to do with it at all. I think Harry also made a mistake by including Ward Moore’s classic “Bring the Jubilee,” which is a novella, not a short story, and takes up a quarter of the book; that space would have been better allocated to one of the pieces from What If, or some other story from earlier in the century, since Moore’s is the only story that predates the late 1960s, and most of these were published only in the 1980s or later. (7/23/02)

Grant, John, et al. West Point: The First 200 Years. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2002.

Partly because I grew up as an Army brat, I’ve always been fascinated by the military and naval academies, as far back as the 1950s TV series “The Long Grey Line.” This coffee table book is a companion to a PBS special marking the 200th anniversary of President Jefferson’s founding of a military educational institution at West Point, up the Hudson from New York. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, with as much attention given to the text as to the pictures, tracing the Academy from its floundering first few years, to the sixteen-year reign of Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer (the true father of the school), through the classes that supplied most of the leaders on both sides of the Civil War (they all had served together in the War with Mexico, too), through the long years leading up to World War I. Fifty-nine of the cadets in the Class of 1915 (“the Class the Stars Fell On”) became general officers, and one became president. During the later days of the Vietnam War, cadets seldom left the school grounds, they were so badly treated by civilians their own age, and there were several major cheating scandals — the author doesn’t whitewash any of that stuff — but the Academy, having revised itself almost continuously for two centuries — seems to be coming back. This is a beautiful book. (7/22/02)

Le Carré, John. Smiley’s People. NY: Knopf, 1980.

This is the last volume in a trilogy which is, without any doubt, the best spy story ever written in English. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy began it with the story of George Smiley’s uncovering of the mole in British Intelligence HQ, known as “the Circus.” The Honourable Schoolboy — which largely stands alone from the first and third books, and is a superior piece of work by itself — tells of Smiley’s first steps toward revenge against Karla, head of Moscow Centre and his personal enemy for nearly thirty years . . . only to be denied the fruits of his own success by political machinations at home. Smiley’s People brings everything to a very satisfying conclusion, via the discovery that Karla has an unsuspected human side, which makes him vulnerable. As always, Le Carré’s development of his characters is masterful and his dialogue and descriptive passages make it clear why, at his best, he is considered an exceptional stylist. The pace of the action in the early part of the book is purposely rather slow, drawing you in, making you pay attention to what’s happening and thinking about what secrets might be behind it all — just as one imagines George is doing. But as the story develops, the pace picks up, until the last quarter is nearly a headlong gallop toward a triumphant final chapter. Unreservedly recommended. (7/20/02)

Le Carré, John. The Honourable Schoolboy. NY: Knopf, 1977.

This is the second volume in the Smiley trilogy, and it’s rather darker than the first. The Hon. Gerald Westerby, journalist and overseas correspondent (“hack for a comic,” as he calls himself) was a very minor character in the first book, but this one is very much his story, set in Vientiane and Bangkok and London, but mostly in Hong Kong. George Smiley, having rid the Circus of its mole, is determined to make the Service great again, and he proposes to do it by identifying whatever Bill Haydon had tried hardest to conceal. Drake Ko, Chinese tycoon, becomes the focus of George’s efforts, and Jerry Westerby is resurrected and sent out East as the key field agent in the operation. The plot is a masterpiece of Le-Carréan complexity. The characters are clearly drawn and their motivations are carefully worked out. And the suspense of the final couple of chapters will keep you up late to finish it — even though the ending is rather sad. I’m going straight on to the third volume. (7/13/02)

Le Carré, John. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. NY: Knopf, 1974.

I’m a longtime Le Carré fan, but I realized recently that it had been nearly two decades since I read what is undoubtedly his best work — the Smiley trilogy. Based loosely on the Kim Philby debacle, this one is about the realization that a Soviet mole has been busy for many years in the Circus — the headquarters of the British espionage service — and the recently sacked George Smiley, a victim himself of the mole’s machinations, is secretly brought in by a reluctant Whitehall to identify the culprit and clean house. It’s the old problem: Who will spy on the spies? Le Carré is a master of the telling detail, even with minor supporting characters, and all the inhabitants of this novel are vividly realized. This isn’t a James Bond yarn, either, as the “action” is mostly in the form of reading files, interviewing agents, and hard thinking. And Smiley, fat, middleaged, and in secret agonies over his wife’s habitual infidelity, turns out to possess unexpectedly heroic stature. This novel, and the two that follow, make up the best spy story ever written in English. (7/03/02)

Published on 22 November 2009 at 1:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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