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monica (Ireland)

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Venices (Pushkin Collection)
Venices (Pushkin Collection)
by Paul Morand
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.60

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What was lost, 8 Feb 2013
Rounded up from 3 1/2 stars.

Morand was in his eighties when he put together this book; I say 'put together' because although there's a chronological framework it seems almost incidental and Venices, whilst being a look back through the years, is a collection of musings as much of as memories-mostly but not altogether of Venice--rather than a memoir. Morand touches upon his father's habits, Palladian architecture, his travels, office politics in the diplomatic corps, Venetian history, the way the sunlight falls on a favourite cafe. And because he was reared and for all his life kept a foot in an artistic milieu, the likes of Les Six, Diaghilev, and Prousr are some of those who people the book, though a reader shouldn't expect telling anecdotes about the famous.

As he does in the other two books I've read by him, Morand writes with a calm restraint in a style that without being in any way striking makes many others' writing seem tepid and undistinguished. Perhaps it's that calmness that makes his books so attractive--that and, in Venices, an incredibly strong sense of mood. I can't just now think of another book so strongly pervaded by mood. The tone is overwhelmingly elegiac, and long after I finished reading I felt a bit melancholy. It's not that Morand expresses sadness or regret; he's much too urbane for that. (And when he does give way to a things-were-better-when-we-were-young complaint he ends it with 'And the young people of today are better-looking than we were.')

The edition I read is also from Pushkin but its cover is a murky painting of a Venetian scene set on a blue background that's much more appealing than the one pictured here, which looks like a 1950's wallpaper sample; if you're thinking of buying this, you might consider checking which edition you'd be getting. (And by the way, ignore those excerpts from reviews in 'product' description; one is so perfectly idiotic and random--apocalypse? self-destructiveness? racing and stroboscopic prose?--that I wonder whether the writer had read Venices, and I'd be surprised to learn that the writer of the other had even set eyes on the book.)

The Man on the Bridge (Welbeck Modern Classics)
The Man on the Bridge (Welbeck Modern Classics)
by Stephen Benatar
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars London, 1959: Gay love was illegal but spaghetti on toast wasn't, 4 Feb 2013
John Wilmot is a beautiful youth who catches the eye and then the heart of a successful artist, Oliver Cambourne. Wilmot is a man with eye fixed steadily on the main chance and moves effortlessly from the life of bookshop clerk to one in which expensive gifts, spur-of-the-moment travels, and the Chelsea Arts Ball are a matter of course. After spending less than a year with Cambourne, he spots an even better opportunity. He grabs it, and the consequences of his doing so leave many people, sooner or later, feeling shattered.

In the long denouement we see Wilmot being denied, and denying himself of, the assurance of a life funded lavishly by others. Gradually, though, he appropriates ever larger bits of Cambourne's past, and the book's ending leaves him with the chance to work his way back into the good graces of yet another benefactor. That's a cynical reading; the author of the introduction to the novel sees Wilmot redeeming himself in this part of the book, and so might you. It's just as likely that Benatar's intention was somewhere between the two.

This sort of ambiguity is one of the things I particularly like about the novel; so are some very well-drawn characters; the understated way in which Wilmot lays claim to first Cambourne's trinkets, then his actions, and then more still; and, similarly, the slow revelation of a major character's (Elizabeth's) true nature and motives. In fact, the story in general is told with a refreshing subtlety--I can easily imagine other writers playing up the drama in it and in the process making the story itself feel implausible. A few minor drawbacks caught my notice: There's very occasionally a slight awkwardness, mostly in diction but once or twice in phrasing, that suggest that the novel might have benefitted from one final polishing, and though Wilmot does seem as blithely oblivious as ever of others' feelings till very late in the book, his financial sacrifice and his reactions near the end make it almost seem as if Benatar couldn't make up his own mind about whether he had in the end reformed or simply regrouped. I'm glad of there being no clear-cut explanation, but there's a sense of to-and-fro'ing rather than a consistently smooth presentation of Wilmot's behaviour in the last part of the story.

A very good book, and if you like it try Benatar's Wish Her Safe at Home, which to me is even better.

Rupert: A Confession
Rupert: A Confession
by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.13

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I missed much of the second set, 26 Jan 2013
This review is from: Rupert: A Confession (Hardcover)
. . . of a Grand Slam final to finish this book, something I would never have thought possible. But Rupert is exactly my cup of tea: The writing is atmospheric, condensed, and lyrical, and it contains wordplay and many literary references; it's very funny--a tirade about men who wear comfortable jumpers actually made me laugh aloud; the narrator is unreliable and is fascinating psychologically; it transfixed my attention; and it leaves some questions unanswered.

Rupert is accused of a crime, and the novel comprises statements he makes to the court in three hearings. Much of his account is of his love for Mira, the ideal woman he has lost, but his meanderings into other matters--the city as a repository of memories, the ideal public square, e.g.--are every bit as interesting, and every bit as revealing (though less readily so) of Rupert's personality and, often, of his need to play the role of spectator/spectacle.

The word-play begins with the subtitle, is apparent in Mira's name, and continues. There are phrases, just as there are some characters, that recur in varying circumstances throughout the book. And the literary references are used beautifully: Nabokov, Eliot, Algonquin Round Table habitues, classical writers and more are all worked in in, but with a light and usually comic touch, and their very presence tells us something about Rupert.

I skimmed some online reviews after finishing this, and some of them complained that the book was prurient/titillating or that it contained deeply upsetting scenes. It's true that a horrible crime is described, but because it's done so, tellingly, at second hand in poetic language the account of it isn't nauseous. There's a fair bit about Rupert's sexual fantasies and failures, but there's nothing gratuitous in the way they're detailed.

This is a book I'll read again, for several reasons: No doubt I'll find details and references I missed in this reading; oblique references to trial evidence near the end put a different slant on the previous pages; I want to read it even more closely, as Pfeijffer seems so intelligent a writer that I think he's chosen each character, each episode, and each word with very great care; and simply because it's a page-turner that's also great fun. . . Clever cover design as well.

Dr. Clock's Handbook
Dr. Clock's Handbook
by Julian Rothenstein
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.86

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The only book I know of whose erratum notice refers to bacon and eggs and Einstein, 1 Jan 2013
This review is from: Dr. Clock's Handbook (Hardcover)
Ah, no, there's neither a review nor a 'look inside' for this book. I can remedy the first, at least.

Dr Clock is an unusual collection of fiction, poems, essays, humourous pieces and--naturally, since it's a book from Redstone--many and very well-chosen illustrations. The prose selections, most of them only a page or two, have been chosen for their absurdity, in a very broad sense of the word, and the art ranges from the absurd to the incongruous to the camp: Ruscha and Saul Steinberg are included but so too are a quite odd Mexican wall chart, photos from old knitting magazines, and a garish poster for a remake of Tarzan. The writing is light in tone, but the writers of it are anything but lightweight: Perec, Ballard, Borges, Kharms, and Joseph Roth are here. Pieces from authors like Robert Filliou and Donald Parsnips are a bonus, as their works in long-out-of-print small press editions are now priced to appeal only to avid book collectors with carefree spending habits.

You needn't have heard of the writers or artists I've mentioned to enjoy this book hugely; you could in fact regard it as light reading to be kept at the bedside. For me, it is despite its bitsiness a fair bit more than that: it's exercised my imagination, it's introduced me to writers and artists I mightn't otherwise have been likely to know about, and it's a book I shall re-read or simply leaf through in years to come, just as I've done in the years since buying it.

3 1/2 stars

The Guard
The Guard
by Peter Terrin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.56

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 50 pages too many, 17 Nov 2012
This review is from: The Guard (Hardcover)
3 1/2 stars.

The 'product' descriptions--for a change--and another reiview give a very good idea of the setting, characters, and atmosphere of the story. The setting is refreshingly imaginative as are most of the happenings within it, and great skill is shown in the transitions between one vignette and the next (the book is arranged in very short chapters): It must have taken a good deal of thought to avoid making these feel clumsy. And that Terrin fails to give answers to the questions a reader will have is for me quite satisfying; one never learns why the guards are treated as they are by their employer, why the apartment building and perhaps the city have been abandoned, and what will happen after the book's end. It seems to me that the book could have been even more atmospheric had the author used a slightly less straightforward style (or perhaps presentation) but the writing isn't altogether conventional: the narrator's imaginings, memories, and his feelings about Harry are often given obliquely.

The Guard is divided into three sections. The first section is all but spellbinding and the third one is. The second, which is perhaps one-fifth of the book, fell flat. In it a new element is introduced into the story and we learn more about Harry. This part of the book is predictable--anyone who's seen a few Hollywood films knows the outcome; repetitious--the change in Harry is hammered home in several similar passages; and despite the dramatic goings-on simply isn't very interesting: I wasn't altogether certain as I read it that I'd bother to finish the book. It isn't that the book suddenly becomes a bad one but it is for a while a rather boring one. Perhaps it's because all that occurs in that section is more clear-cut, nearly heavy-handedly so, and that the atmosphere and mystery are because of that dissipated. (But another reader might welcome the action in it, however unpalatable, or like it for the pointthat I think Terrin's making about our prejudices.)

I shall almost certainly re-read this and if I do I hope that I'll then find Part 2 to be not the sticking-point it seems now . . . .
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 22, 2012 6:13 PM GMT

Transcript (Austrian Literature Series)
Transcript (Austrian Literature Series)
by Heimrad Bäcker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.34

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars testimonies, 12 Nov 2012
I've read over the years a few histories of various facets of the Shoah and a fair few first-hand accounts by people who were trapped in the ghettoes and the death camps and upon reading them was always left with a blanket depression and the question of how this could have happened; I knew full well that the suffering, the mass murders were real, that they did indeed happen but I didn't feel an immediacy in these books that might have removed the psychological cushion sparing me from feeling the horror at deeper levels.

Then I read KL AUSCHWITZ SEEN BY THE SS., a collection of three statements written by SS men brought to trial for having worked in the camps. These accounts by the criminals themselves for some reason had that immediacy, snatched away the cushion, and made me feel the reality of it all rather than simply acknowledging it intellectually. In seeking more information on that book, I came across a mention of this one; again, it's derived from contemporary documents, almost all of them written by Nazis and again, I had an almost visceral reaction to it.

Transcript is described as a concrete poem; it isn't, in the strictest sense, though layout of the poem is relevant. Every word in it is taken from lists--of belongings, of regulations, of the dead--and from notes, directives, reports on doctors' experiments and on interrogations, and similar material. Backer omitted, repeated, and rearranged (in that he was much influenced by the Vienna Group) and appended notes/bibliography but that's the extent of his intervention.

A pity there's no 'look inside' for this book to give an idea of the distinctive layout and, much more, of the content. One page lists parks, gardens, and squares: it was only gradually and with growing dismay I realised what that list referred to. Another page contains only one line: 'this is my last letter and i'm letting you know that i was shot on september 1st at six o'clock'. Another page still might show only a list of numbers or a collection of acronyms (explained in Backer's notes) or it might offer a description of Hitler's typical breakfast.

The starkness of the presentation here is what allows the content to strike a reader full-force; as the afterword notes, description can stand in the way of reality, just as referring to something as 'unspeakable' can stand in the way of our ever trying to know it. Backer shows us the reality of a man-made hell and compels us to dwell there for a time. Highly recommended.

The Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception
by Gaetan Soucy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars wormy, 31 Oct 2012
Years ago after my friends and I had outgrown using the word 'yucky' we sometimes used the word 'wormy'. It implied something less straightforward than 'I'm disgusted' or 'this is repellent' and it went beyond 'yucky' because we used it only when referring to something that seemed wholly outside our sheltered little world. And it's the best word to describe how I feel about Immaculate Conception--I cast about for another, but none seemed so near the mark.

Just as I don't know how to sum up the book in a different word I've no idea how to review it, or in fact whether it's possible to write a review that does justice to all aspects of it; indeed, I'm writing this as much to dispel that feeling of worminess as to draw attention to the novel. At any rate, the setting is a working-class district of Montreal in what's probably the 1920's and the main characters are a schoolteacher teetering on the brink of madness, an apparently simple-minded clerk tormented by memories of a traumatic event, the clerk's vilely malicious and oppressive father, and a well-intentioned priest who is helpless to relieve the suffering and to mitigate the evils of the people around him.

Soucy focusses now upon one character, now upon another, now upon the present, now upon the past. This doesn't make the book hard to follow; I did though sometimes confuse the events of one character's childhood with those of another's, and perhaps that's understandable as the book is rife with child abuse. It has as well its fair share of rape and murder and more than its fair share of thoroughly contemptible characters, one of whom seems as close to being purely evil as any other I've read about.

Soucy as always writes wonderfully well, so well that he manages to entice a reader to carry on even when the account becomes gruelling and so well that he carries off hints of the fantastic, strands that defy explanation, and a revelation that is the stuff of Grand Guignol.

I've seen comparisons of this novel to works by Dostoevsky, Poe, Sade, and more. In spirit though not style or content the authors it reminded me of were Celine and Lautreamont. Overall, a book of great power--though I half wish it weren't.

(If you're seriously interested in Immaculate Conception I recommend reading an extraordinary review of it on I don't agree with all of it, and it is because of poor layout difficult to read, but it gives a stronger idea of the effect the book can have upon a reader than anything I can say.)

Building Stories
Building Stories
by Chris Ware
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.00

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, but . . . ., 14 Oct 2012
This review is from: Building Stories (Hardcover)
For me, it's actually 3 1/2 stars, but that might be simply because I was expecting the outstanding. Chris Ware is I think my favourite American comics writer and I heartily recommend this book, but I don't think it's Ware at his very best.

If you've read (the exceedingly good) Acme Novelty Libary no. 18, Building Stories will ring a bell: Except for tales of a temporary resident the story is of the tenants of an apartment building, focussing upon the main character of the previous book. (If you own ANL no. 18 be prepared to own another copy of it--rather disappointingly it's one of the books enclosed and though it's slightly larger than the original I noticed no other changes.) Ware dips in and out of the lives of an old woman, a couple with a strained relationship, and, most of all, a lonely young woman. There's little drama in those lives and most of what we learn of these people we learn from their thoughts, but the book is credible and most of it is thoroughly absorbing, The art is of course terrific.

But a couple of the booklets barely held my interest. While the 'The Daily Bee', a mock newspaper, was very nice a booklet about the bee character, which actually has the most attractive artwork in the book, grows almost tedious. Another over-long booklet seems to have no point other than to show us that a mother loves her child. Indeed, I wondered whether Ware had written some of Building Stories shortly after becoming a parent; although he never quite slides into sentimentality he comes close to it. (The child's words and actions do seem true to life, though.)

And the lonely woman, the child's mother, sometimes verges on being a rather annoying bore. I've little doubt that my tolerance for self-absorbed socially awkward characters has been lowered because so many American graphic novelists--Clowes of course springs to mind--have done them almost to death, but her preoccupation with herself (pre-child, anyway), with her appearance, whether she'll find a partner, slights she suffered years ago, wears thin. Occasionally as well her social cluelessness would be in real life downright scary: She interprets disinterested glances as signs of sexual attraction to her and, when a virtual stranger gives her a lift and upon reaching the destination takes hold of her hand, her response is to say disappointedly 'I know . . . you only want to be "friends".' And onn the whole I'm not sure this person is interesting enough to merit so many pages of the book; I'd rather have read more about the man downstairs, who seems to have a more complex personality than the other characters.

Because I've a fair few books in odd formats, including a couple of others in boxes, I wasn't quite so ravished by the format of this one as others have been: it's a good idea but not a new one. Moreover, whilst the papers, pamphlets, and books are bundled together within the box, there's nothing to prevent that bundle sliding about during shipping and I presume that's why several of the items in my copy were bent at the edges and why the foil covering the spine of one book has begun to peel. (For some interesting remarks on the book's design, see mrclam's review on American amazon.)

One last thing: If you've never read Chris Ware--and certainly if you've never read comics--this mightn't be the best place to start. Instead, for a full-length novel, try Jimmy Corrigan; for Ware at his most distinctive, have a look at Acme Novelty Library (unnumbered) or perhaps Quimby Mouse.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 25, 2013 10:08 AM BST

Composition No. 1
Composition No. 1
by Marc Saporta
Edition: Paperback
Price: £25.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars not bound to be a page-turner, but it is one, 2 Oct 2012
This review is from: Composition No. 1 (Paperback)
From what I gather, in the original edition of the book Saporta specified that the pages of it be shuffled before being read and went on to claim that our lives are affected by the points at which, even the order in which, the events in them occur more than by nature of those events. In other words, Composition No. 1 is in this format for a valid artistic reason and not out of frivolity.

There are three (or four, or just possibly two) main characters in the novel. Certain episodes are referred to repeatedly but the various takes on them are of different moments in their unfolding. Constants are Helga, Dagmar, and Marianne, as well as German reprisals upon a French village that had been liberated by the maquis; thefts of envelopes; the quasi-rape of Helga; Marianne's increasing instability; a lying child and his Maman. In other words, it's not a difficult book to follow as one never loses one's bearings altogether. At the end there are certainly various possible interpretations of the content, but I can't think of any deeply satisfying work that that can't be said of.

Rather surprisingly--most of the reviews of the book I found suggested that the story itself is scrappy or flimsy--Composition was difficult to put aside; I was absorbed in it and would gladly have read much more of the same. And this edition is a fine one: the box is sturdy, the art on the back of each page is well worth a careful look, and a glossary of the features of a (conventional) book is nicely quirky. I couldn't, though, find the name of the translator, and only by reading the Guardian's review did I learn that it was the highly-regarded Richard Howard, who rated only a very small credit on the inside of the box; if the publisher issues another edition, I hope that Howard will be accorded the prominence now given to 'Tom Uglow, Google and You Tube', whoever he is. I do though think I'll take Mr Uglow-of-Google-and-You-Tube's advice and, sooner or later, read the book again in a different order.
Comment Comments (6) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 14, 2012 9:27 AM BST

Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History
Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History
by Deanne Stillman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars abysmal, 28 Sep 2012
Dear god, the writing in this book is awful. Use 'look inside' to read the first few pages and see Stillman all in purple (with prosaic detailing about the hem); once you've marvelled at so brazen a display of self-indulgent tosh, remind yourself that this passage of utter speculation is the beginning of a non-fiction book. Now click 'surprise me' and, if you're lucky, you may hit upon dictions like 'borne' for 'born', 'pirate' for 'outlaw', or perhaps the very weird 'creation myth' for 'the early days of [a city].' Keep a sharp eye out for relapses into the overwritten irrelevancy, like the sentence beginning something like (I refuse to go through this book looking for exact quotes) 'Gates grew up in LA, learning its hard streets' and ending in the vein of 'where the hinted whiff of scented jasmine wafts its way down to the mumbling surf.'

Not all the irrelevant material is so er poetic; indeed, that tone would be difficult to sustain through the countless pages that have no bearing whatsoever upon the subject. There's enough padding here to keep a mattress factory in business for years to come. For example, when a family meet up at a Big Boy cafe, the cafe's sign--sorry, its 'cheerful sentinel', the food ('giant platters of burgers and fries that led to a moment of satisfaction'), the origins of the cafe, the importance of the cafe to families, the importance of memories of eating in the cafe, and more are all discussed in a page-long paragraph. (Oh dear, I left out the cafe's Scrammy Hammy meal and what sort of customers it appealed to and forgot to mention the sentence with 18 clauses.) When crossing the desert musing upon the murder, the author remembers a ring tone she overheard in a shop. And tells us why she does. And so on. And on and on.

The writing is bad in so many ways that what the book really needs is a Mark Twain to do a Fenimore Cooper job on it. What the author really needs is te be issued an injunction against approaching all objects that could conceivably be used as writing implements, including mascara wands and crayons. It should be needless to say that I didn't finish the book.

Given that I'm not likely to read the sort of book that recounts how shamans from Atlantis constructed Stonehenge or any of those vanity-published kindle novels, I'd imagined that I'd never feel obliged to give a book only one star. Whoops. If you're of a mind to read about manhunts in the desert, try Frank Norris's novel McTeague or Ed Sanders's non-fiction The Family. Norris is no great shakes as a writer but he's a giant compared to Stillman, and Sanders is a poet who in contrast to her has a sense of what words mean, how they should be put together, and what words should remain inside an author's head. Both these writers impart a strong sense of the desert, of its ruggedness and desolation, and of being hunted down there. This book doesn't.

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