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monica (Ireland)

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The Immaculate Conception
The Immaculate Conception
by Gaetan Soucy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.07

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: £7.49

22 of 24 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: £17.02

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars abysmal, 28 Sept. 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.

Group Portrait with Lady - W/B 2
Group Portrait with Lady - W/B 2
by Boll
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars looking for Leni, 27 Sept. 2012
The other review here (and what a shame to turn to this page and find only one review of the book) gives a good outline of Group Portrait. All I can add to it is that the story is pieced together a bit as a documentary would be rather than being a straightforward narrative, and that virtually all the book is what an unnamed author has learned in interviews with people who have known Leni.

If I said that Group Portrait is an author's account of his attempt to learn all he could about a woman, telling us of the course of that quest, of what he learned along the way, giving vivid accounts of the various characters he encountered whilst doing so, it could well sound like a book club selection. It's far from it: this is unmistakably a literary novel, it has amibiguities and authorial games, and not only do we not get a strong sense of Leni but she seems (as I read it) nearly a cipher. Where the writer of a lesser book would have made her into saint or goddess, as could easily have been done, Boll shows us little more of her personality than suggestions that she's a free spirit and--again, by my reading--a bit simple. (And in the same way, episodes that a less subtle author would have striven to make heart-wrenching, e.g., are handled not coldly but nonetheless without any attempt to manipulate the reader's emotions.) This treatment of the main character is refreshing and one not many authors would dare, I think.

I'd read a couple of other novels by Boll and hadn't gathered from them that he has a good sense of humour, but he does; indeed, his 'happy endings' take on the flavour of those in a farce, though the one truly touching moment occurs amidst those endings. I don't know whether this is something I'd ever re-read, but in the short term I'll be intently thinking over the novel and in the long term I doubt I'll ever forget it.

And by the way, a reading of Group Portrait would no doubt be enriched by some knowledge of political and everyday life in Germany in the first three quarters of the last century but my having none at all didn't detract from my enjoyment of it.

Traces Remain: Essays and Explorations
Traces Remain: Essays and Explorations
by Charles Nicholl
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.70

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars bedtime stories, 5 Aug. 2012
3 1/2 stars.

It was to support the village book shop and because the book contained amongst a few essays that looked interesting one on Arthur Cravan that I bought Traces Remain. Certainly I've no curiosity whatsoever about 16th- and 17th-century British writers nor Italian Renaissance figures and it's those that much of the book is about.

How pleasant it was, then, to find that each essay caught and held my attention. Virtually any writer of standard competence and knowledge could hold me rapt with a piece about a subject I'm deeply interested in; I doubt that many, though, could write something about John Aubrey or Ben Jonson that I'd read through, never mind enjoy as much as I did Nicholl's pieces.

I like this book too for what it isn't: So many columnists and reviewers (some of them writing for the same periodicals that first published the pieces in this collection) betray evidence of self-consciousness, especially in seeming to strive for a certain tone--often after reading a few paragraphs of their stuff I find myself thinking 'she's trying to sound breezy', 'he wants to be thought urbane', 'he's going for "knowledgeable but matey" ' and so on. Nicholl just writes, well and naturally, and to say that the reader is unaware of the writer, let alone the act of writing, is high praise. And whilst his style is informal it never seems forcedly so.

I kept this book at the bedside and began by reading it, out of sleepiness, only in bits, but it wasn't long before I began reading it in bits because I didn't want to come to its end. I'd not go so far as to read Nicholl's books on Marlowe and Leonardo, but I'd happily read more of his essays and explorations.

by Hannah Berry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.29

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars aboard the mystery train, 2 July 2012
This review is from: Adamtine (Paperback)
I so like this book for several reasons: The plot and the handling of it, the dialogue, the strong atmosphere, and the thoroughly deft and appropriate art-work.

A few people are on the last night train out of London. The carriage(s) they are in suddenly and without explanation stop moving and it gradually dawns upon the passengers that this is not the result an obstruction on the track or BR incompetence but of something altogether different. Their journey has become one into high strangeness.

Glimpses of back-stories of these passengers are offered, and with them hints of the reason that this might be happening to these particular people. And really I don't think I can say much else about the plot without revealing what a reader would better find for himself, or without giving my own interpretation of the book's ambiguities. I re-read the book immediately after finishing it partly because I'd been so tense (rather frightened, actually) on first reading that I'd gallopped through without giving the art the attention it deserves, and when I did so I found that many things that seemed out-of-place or utterly confusing the first time had been explained later in the story.

And the art is very fetching and very effective. The second time around I studied each panel, and many of them are gems. (As well, the free approach to panel boundaries, like the changes in viewpoint and in focus are well-considered.) I'm especially taken with Berry's feeling for light and darkness: a wash, I think, that tells us that a kitchen is on the north side of a house, the treatment of a mobile's screen shining through a layer of paper, the depiction of a carriage's lighted interior seen from outside on a starless night. Berry's skilful drawings are probably the main element in the book's atmosphere and creepiness.

In fact, I don't think the story would have been so strong had it been told with text only; it would in other hands and in conventional form probably have lost much subtlety and dengenerated into a standard thriller-like horror story. This really should appeal to anyone who relishes the odd, the unexplained, and a search for clues, and not only to people who are used to reading graphic novels.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 8, 2012 5:51 PM BST

An A-Z of Possible Worlds (Boxed Set)
An A-Z of Possible Worlds (Boxed Set)
by A.C. Tillyer
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good stuff. Read it., 29 May 2012
I've just re-read this and think even better of it than I did upon first reading, perhaps because this time 'round I wasn't concentrating solely on plot and atmosphere and so was able to get a sense of the intelligence and humour underlying the writing.

Tillyer's stories are of places, people, events in off-kilter versions of this world, a reality gone slightly awry, and not the surreal or wholly fantastic: A city whose streets are literally labyrinthine; a slumming visitor to a kingdom who is at great cost made king; an ring road of nearly hypnotic appeal and inexplicable danger; civilian astronauts whose time in space is televised as a reality show.

Not one of the stories is a dud and some are truly haunting: For a few years, something I'd read about an underwater city and charging horses now and again came to mind and I was delighted to find it again in 'R is for Reservoir'. Tillyer's style is straightforward and--for the most part--polished, her ability to pack so much matter into stories so short is admirable, and her imagination is something I covet. I'm surprised there are so few reviews of this, as though the book in no way resembles mass-market pap it seems like one that would have a very wide appeal amongst general readers. And anyone who's a fan of Chateaureynaud's or Alois Hotschnig's stories would probably take to these (and vice versa).

The format of A-Z is outstanding. Each story is a separate chap-book and all are contained in a box. This isn't a tricksy design decision but packaging inspired by and perfectly appropriate to the content and, it occurred to me, forced me to take a bit of time to let each story sink in, whereas had the book been in conventional form I would have raced through it. The only slight let-down, at least to a geek who looks at copyright pages and credits on end flaps, is that the designer seems to receive no mention. The format might have been a group decision, but surely the letters of the alphabet weren't drawn by a committee.

No doubt I'll be reading this yet again in a few years . . .

3 1/2 stars
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 23, 2013 6:45 AM BST

It's a Boy - it's a Girl
It's a Boy - it's a Girl
by Kirsten Dietz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.66

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Don't judge a book by its cover or title or introduction, 29 April 2012
I pulled this book down from a shelf in T.K. Maxx despite its title and the pink-and-blue lettering on its spine because it was from Taschen and thus I'd a very faint hope that it wasn't a book about babies. It isn't, nor is it 'also' a photography book: It's a photography book, full stop. The 'product' description seems to imply that the editor's remarks about using it as a source book for babies' names were in earnest.

Dietz's colour photographs are all of signs, almost always shop-front ones, containing someone's given name. She seems to have a good eye for the quirky incidental detail and for urban clutter--the roof-top pipes, the wall-mounted meters, the grafitti, the billboard--that one is usually blind to. Though the photos were taken in several countries and sometimes portray what seem to be thriving shops, and though their content left me lingering over almost all of them, the ones I particularly adored were of hand-lettered signs, sometimes with rather poignantly clumsy pictures on them, askew on paint-peeled walls of shops long since closed on unpeopled streets under what seems to be a very stark light in California.

I've not given this 5 stars because on the one hand I've not the knowledge of photgraphy to assess the book properly and on the other because the content and mood of the book have so immediate an appeal to my tastes that I can't possibly judge it objectively. But if you can imagine yourself feeling in the shadow of mystery and desolation when really only standing in the shade cast by a shop-front, you might pass as I did several happy hours looking at this book.

Candy Story (European Women Writers)
Candy Story (European Women Writers)
by Marie Redonnet
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars best hurled from the top of a Seineside lighthouse, 17 April 2012
Whenever Lilo went to the lighthouse on the seaside, Lala would read aloud to Lurm from a book. When I was in my studio on the Seine I had the book with me. Kurlu had left a message on the answering machine. After Jack Bobbin and I flew to the seaside I asked Louie about the book. He often read books while working at the front desk in the Seaside Hotel and he said that at bottom it was an attractively tawdry thriller.

Lilo left the seaside town to manage the Sea's Edge Casino. Lail and Cryz thought she was as glamourous as Lali the movie star or Carlotta the famous singer. The televsion crew were filming. Kurlu asked me to a wrap party, but so many people were murdered that Lummy cancelled it. I had put on my green summer Givenchy gown and my forcedly simple writing style but threw the gown into the lighthouse-keeper's bonfire. I kept the style because it was the only one I had and it reminded me of the poetry Lulu's son Lao wrote. Lao likes airports as much as I do. I met him in Arrivals. After drinking lemonades we left from Departures for a seaside place where we had it on in an abandoned dance hall near an empty airport hangar. It was an evocative or a random setting but it wasn't then he hinted that the book's author was equal to Echenoz and Robbe-Grillet.

In my studio on the Seine I wondered where the last year had gone. After I put on my red dress and the puce headband that had looked so nice on Ma's head, I went to Winkle's dining room. Laramie was there, and he told me that I had been wrong to trust Lao and Louie and the publisher's description of the book.

Lulu, Carlotta, Lummy, and the Interpol detective were murdered, and Jack Bobbin wasted away with one of those diseases that Europeans who sleep with Africans get. I wondered how I had wasted away a year at seaside hotels and in my studio on the Seine. Lime wondered why I had wasted an hour reading the book.

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