Erasmus apologizes yet again to the Encomium's regular readers (both of them: holla, Flava, Vito!) for the almost now customary delay in posting. Erasmus has once again had more time to read than write, backing up. So, rather than do the individual reviews these books deserve, you will once again have to travel down glandi plumbea seriatim.
- The System of the World wrapped up Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy. While Quicksilver began as a sprawling novel of ideas, and The Confusion shifted gears into an adventure novel, The System of the World has many of the trappings of a political thriller. Like the trilogy in microcosm, it is a large and rambling work with some longeurs but, also like the trilogy writ small, it ultimately repays the time put into it. Erasmus stands by his earlier comment that Stephenson is Tom Clancy for people with graduate degrees, but cannot praise his ambition in creating this massive work highly enough. The System of the World: placet; the Baroque Trilogy, ave.
- While Stephenson concerns himself with gargantuan themes and his characters consequently sometimes seem small and shallow in front of the vasty backdrop, Iain Pears' new novella, The Portrait is a vivid, deftly sketched miniature by contrast. Or, perhaps it's best described as a portrait. Pears pulls off the very difficult trick of keeping the reader with a single, intense, slightly mad-sounding narrator (a Scottish portrait painter, in self-imposed exile on a bleak Breton isle) who speaks to a single listener (an influential English critic, an acquantaince of decades) as the former paints the latter's portrait. While the climactic acts of the book are telegraphed fairly early on, the motivations of the characters do not reveal themselves until very late in the day and when they do, they're effectively shocking. Pears is also the author of An Instance of the Fingerpost, a book which provoked a more divisive reaction among its readership than any Erasmus has read in a long time. He loved it; others hated it. It, too, is a masterpiece of first-person narration, expanding its story as each narrator casts suspicions on the previous one's reliability. The Portrait is a fine miniature, its technique excellent. Ave.
- Alas, the same cannot be said for The Italian Secretary: A Further Adventure of Sherlock Holmes by the fine historian Caleb Carr. Erasmus very much enjoyed Carr's historical mystery The Alienist up to its rather dull, formulaic climax, and was exceedingly impressed by The Devil Soldier, his biography of Frederick Townsend Ward, an American who ended up commanding troops in the Taiping Rebellion. Consequently, despite his recently-confessed aversion to Holmes pastiches, Erasmus finds himself reviewing another one. Erasmus was disappointed, and found the story ultimately uninteresting (despite an engaging backstory and milieu). Worse, Erasmus was surprised to find several apparent linguistic anachronisms. Stephenson supra seems to intentionally goof around with slipping modern terms into his historical epic; it's annoying, but comes off more as a stylistic tic than an error. Non placet.
- Erasmus was exceedingly heartended by Watch Your Back!, Donald E. Westlake's latest chronicle of J.A. Dortmunder & Co. As long-time readers (pause for laughter to subside) remember, Erasmus loves Westlake. And he was a bit disappointed in The Road To Ruin, the previous Dortmunder book. Happily, Watch Your Back! returns to top form. The detestable fence Arnie Albright (enthusiastically detested by himself) figures prominently as does a perhaps mortal threat to the Dortmunder crew's rendez-vous, the O.J. Utterly and completely recommended. Popular fiction at its most entertaining. Ave.
Erasmus has promised some commentary on Philip Kerr and will deliver as soon as possible with a longish post. In the meantime, go celebrate the renewal of Arrested Development. Go download Franklin Comes Alive for your iPod.