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monica (Ireland)

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The Poison Paradox : Chemicals as Friends and Foes
The Poison Paradox : Chemicals as Friends and Foes
by John Timbrell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £21.79

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars old dog learns new tricks, 3 Mar 2011
4 1/2 stars. This is an exemplary science book for the general reader and is more absorbing than many and many a novel.

The first few chapters are background ones covering poisons, medicines, and the actions of chemicals upon the body. The last of these especially was exciting for me: heretofore my eyes would have skimmed over any sentence containing 'metabolite' or 'induction of enzymes', but Trimball's presentation is so outstandingly good that I understood and learned rather than simply shoving necessary definitions into my short-term memory.

The bulk of Poison Paradox is devoted to different sorts of chemicals that might do us harm--such as those occurring naturally, pesticides, industrial poisons, murder weapons--and their effects on the body. From the action of a chemical and the body's reactions to and defenses against it and carrying on to overt symptoms of poisoning, these effects are explained thoroughtly and intelligibly, with the aid of very helpful illustrations, cross-references, and case histories.

Not surprisingly, there's some gee-whiz stuff here as well: A stiff gin is an antidote to a form of alcohol poisoning. There was a time when to eat green blancmange was to ingest a dose of arsenic, though presumably only colour-blind diners with undeveloped palates suffered the consequences. Oxygen can be toxic. And I'll never again knowingly eat an organically grown peanut.

A couple of very slight flaws were for me a glossary that could have been improved upon and a tendency here and there to unnecessary repetition. (A pronounced tendency in the case of Paracelsus's dictum, in fact.)

Timbrell is a professor of biochemical toxicology, and his students must consider themselves lucky: Someone who can spark an interest in and a delight in learning about biochemistry in me must be a very fine teacher indeed.


The Allure of Chanel
The Allure of Chanel
by Paul Morand
Edition: Paperback

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thank you, Dubray Books,, 6 Feb 2011
This review is from: The Allure of Chanel (Paperback)
for your bargain bin because otherwise I wouldn't have dreamed of getting what is a very fetching book. It's based upon conversations Morand had with his friend Chanel in Switzerland in 1946, when neither of the two would have been welcome in France. Though Allure is apparently narrated by Chanel, and though her own words no doubt lie behind it, Morand's fashioning of those words is the reason for much if not most of its appeal.

Chanel speaks about her life, but this isn't a biography; she talks about fashion generally and her work specifically, but this isn't a book about fashion; she discusses artists and aristocrats of her acquaintance, but in no way is this a cultural history. Look elsewhere for any of those.

What strikes me about this book is how vividly a personality is portrayed--Chanel is down-to-earth, outrageous, overbearing, oddly passive, wonderfully bitchy and frequently mendacious--through some very good writing. Someone as taken with this book as I was might want to look into the novel Hecate and Her Dogs, in which Morand tells a tale of decadence equally well.

And anyone thinking about buying this should know that there are two editions: The larger one is illustrated by Karl Lagerfeld and has some striking photographs that the smaller lacks.

3 1/2 stars.


Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique (German and Austrian Literature)
Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique (German and Austrian Literature)
by Gert Jonke
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars of music and memory, 4 Feb 2011
Rounded up from 3 1/2 stars. The novel is in two sections and is in patches rather reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard, though Jonke's style is much less extreme. And there seem to be references to music in the repetitions, rhythms, and structure; in fact, I've little doubt there are many musical references I missed altogether.

In the first and longer section two siblings are giving a party. Just as the paintings they've hung about their estate precisely duplicate the views that they obscure, the party will, they hope, down to each word and gesture be indistinguishable from the party they gave exactly one year before. The premise is all the more intriguing because the painter of the oils and the narrator, an unnamed composer, are the only guests who know of their hosts' intention.

The rest of the book describes the visit a composer (who may or may not be the same narrator) and his brother pay to the music conservatory where they both studied. In the attic from which they cannot escape they find dozens upon dozens of pianos allowed to fall into a state of desuetude.

I was a bit more taken with the first section, perhaps because the second was slightly more conventional: The characters were better-drawn, the events less unlikely, and the conversations less surreal than in the first.

I don't know whether I'll have remembered the novel as a whole six months from now, but I don't think I'll have forgotten details in it--the eeriness of the North city, the smokestacks of impossible heights, the unearthly weather patterns and the wonderfully absurd explanations for them--nor the questions it inspires.


500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide
500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide
by Gina McKinnon
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars not striking but not bad, 17 Jan 2011
I find books like this--the Rough Guides to various sorts of books, including cult, come to mind--fun to read, despite their being pretty lightweight and very much subjective. (Given the premises for them, subjectivity and absence of serious criticism would I suppose be difficult to avoid.)

McKinnon divides her books into 10 categories, like the seedy, young adults, sci-fi, one-of-a-kind and doesn't make a bad job of it in commenting on the books, although I would never have bothered looking at some of the ones I quite liked on the basis of her summaries. For each book she lists a few other supposedly similar ones, and here she strays a bit. Well, a lot, at times. Only the most relaxed sort of free association leads from Hero with a Thousand Faces to Babbitt, surely. . . But balancing this drawback is that non-fiction and comics are scattered freely through the various categories.

The photographs of the different covers many of the titles have been issued with are very interesting. There is, though, a serious problem with the book's layout. The margins are cluttered with whacking great labels for suggested reading ages, book titles, chapter titles, and more still. It's visually confusing and this matters. When the pages stick together (they often do) or when is looking for a specific page, one's eyes dance about looking for the page number somewhere amongst all the other numbers in the margins. And I was nearly 100 pages into the book before I noticed that amidst the marginal clutter were star ratings given to the books.

Undemanding and, disappointingly, it didn't leave me eager to hunt down any of the books discussed, but it's a book better for the time being on my shelf rather than Oxfam's.


The Experience of the Night (Europe 1996)
The Experience of the Night (Europe 1996)
by Marcel Bealu
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars visual and other disturbances, 13 Jan 2011
3 1/2 stars.

Marcel Adrien visits Monsieur Focat, an ophthamologist. In order to comply with the prescribed treatment he acquires a job in a mysterious workplace and takes lodgings in an unusual house on a square whose apparent respectability is belied by the monstrous humans living on the side streets off it.

Then things get stranger still. Adrien's adventures include living on a seemingly endless avenue, becoming a figure of adulation, having eye surgery that gives him both the chance to see the underlying beauty in his surroundings and a destructive power, being hounded for no reason by a mob, and willingly becoming a prisoner in a palace apparently constructed by M. Focat in which the statues are in fact robots of some intelligence and great malignity.

The book hangs together far better than my synopsis probably implies and is in some ways quite wonderful. If you liked Jean Ray's Malpertuis you might like this: It has the same power to catch the reader up in happenings that, however incredible, seem real and threatening. I've not rated it more highly mostly because one section, in which Adrien shares a shop and home with two mutes, seems less successful than the others and a bit because passing statements about ways in which a life is to be lived seemed to me superfluous. Well worth seeking out.


The Head of Vitus Bering (Printed head series)
The Head of Vitus Bering (Printed head series)
by Konrad Bayer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.22

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars from gutters to ice floes to points beyond, 29 Oct 2010
What a wonderful book. (But you won't like it if you insist upon straightforwardness, character development, and storyline.) Bayer uses rather experimental methods--montage, clips of other books used freely; repetition, with the repeated passages sometimes negated and sometimes distorted; garbling of syntax; and apparently a mathematical constraint. And golly, does he use them well. Snippets about Bering and his surroundings at home and at sea, discussion of cannibalism and preservation of corpses, wordplay connecting kings and games, notes on selection and initiation of shamans: these don't simply tie together, they allude to each other and best of all to things beyond them lurking unseen outside the book. And so at once the reader's given an intellectual connect-the-dots and a rather dream-like, seemingly limitless host of evocative allusions.

Yet the book isn't difficult. The prose, scenes, and references are readily intelligble; the two or three times syntax goes out the window the intent is clear, and only a few words made me reach for a dictionary. The real world isn't abandoned in the narration, either; we see scenes of Petersburg in its early years and ice forming in the Arctic.

I'd strongly advise anyone who gets the book to read it at one go after having read the afterword and to expect to spend far longer reading it than suggested by its 55 pages. Though I'm normally a fast reader, the latter wasn't difficult for me: it wasn't simply that I didn't want to miss any of the connections but that I was more caught up in this book than I've been in one for a very long time. And now, having read it, I feel capable of reading only non-fiction because at the moment the conventions of traditional fiction would seem irksome restraints. . .or perhaps I'll just re-read this.


Mcteague: A Story of San Francisco (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
Mcteague: A Story of San Francisco (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
by Frank Norris
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars 4th-rate Zola. Nevertheless. . ., 27 Oct 2010
If you've not seen Greed, the story is that of a stupid giant of a dentist who is taken with a woman whom his best friend has been half-heartedly courting. The dentist, McTeague, wins her over. Shortly before the marriage, Trina wins a lottery; the friend convinces himself that McTeague had taken Trina--and, much more important, her windfall--from him and a few years later takes revenge. It all comes to a bad end, of course.

Halfway through McTeague it occurred to me that were I to write about the book here, it would be to recommend it as fit only for students of American Realism and Eric von Stroheim completists in a 2-star review. Norris is much too fond of the epithet, the melodramatic, the repetitious, the cod dialect. Moreover Norris seems to filch from rather than take as an influence the Continental Naturalists. A couple of scenes at least and major themes are very close to those in L'Assomoir, but where Zola makes the reader smell and taste a wedding breakfast, Norris just writes a lot of words about one. Where Zola describes how gold chains are made and integrates this into the story, Norris writes about dentistry in a way that simply makes the reader aware that Norris had researched the topic. Moreover, Norris was a child of privilege and his attitudes reflect his status and his times.

But details in the book are of great historical interest: I had thought that 'outta sight' as 'wonderful' and the nasty custom of displaying wedding presents were only a few decades old. What constitued meals, what times the streets came alive, what was considered respectable in the period all interested me a good deal. (And I'm terribly terribly glad that I don't live in an age when wallpaper like that in the McTeagues' rooms is marketed.)

Moreover, the book has, especially in the second half, a certain power that I can't explain. I finished it not with a sigh of relief, but with the feeling that it would stay with me for some time. Perhaps it's because I'm so taken with desolate places and McTeague ends in Death Valley, but possibly it's because despite its gross shortcomings Mcteague is indeed a powerful book.


The Colonel's Children
The Colonel's Children
by Jules. Supervielle
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a quare one, 16 Oct 2010
This review is from: The Colonel's Children (Hardcover)
This is a very odd novel.. And it seems to be as obscure as it is odd: even French amazon has only one review and, apart from discovering that a movie had been made from the book (how?), I can find little information about it.

Colonel Philomen Bigua and has wife have three children, two of whom had been abandoned and one whom the Colonel kidnapped. As the book opens, he is kidnapping a fourth. A fifth child is later acquired; it's the presence of this one, the only girl, that becomes the undoing of the family.

Part of the strangeness lies in a serene detachment, not only of tone but of the characters themselves. One mother scarcely notices her child's absence and, upon his return, allows him to visit the Colonel often. The children adapt readily to their new parents and household. For much of the book the Colonel seems content to lead a life of sewing, drinking mate, and talking to himself. And, partly because none of the characters is sympathetic, the reader is likely to feel that same detachment. Supervielle's style and presentation also have a strange feel: he shifts setting and point of view freely but each person, whether tortured by lust or quietly praying, and each event has the same pitch, the same tone. The translator describes Supervielle's 'view of the universe' as a lighthouse beam, illuminating various objects and then moving on to pick out others. That seems to me a good analogy for the way The Colonel's Children is written.

It's not only for its oddness that I like this book: it's interesting, understated, rather evocative, and well-written, with the sort of perspectives and associations one would expect from a poet (it's for his poetry that Supervielle is best known.) Overall, having read it is like having had a dream that one keeps returning to and wondering over the next day.

3 1/2 stars


Stalking (FOCI)
Stalking (FOCI)
by Bran Nicol
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.62

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars He's behind you. Oh, yes he is., 10 Oct 2010
This review is from: Stalking (FOCI) (Paperback)
3 stars? 4 stars? I dunno. In any case don't come to this book hoping for lurid tales of stalking. Stalking would probably be classified under culture studies: Nicol discusses the subject by referring to psychoanalytic ideas, legal issues, history,sociology, literature, personal accounts, and film. (He even refers to that great Alan Partidge episode.) With so broad a range of references he's able to suggest causes and connections that mightn't have occurred to the reader, e.g. a stalker's behaviour arising partly from a certain cultural confusion, or the likeness between a Poe character, the flaneur, journalists, and stalkers.

I've yet to read a Reaktion book that wasn't intelligent, thoughtful, very interesting, and at least slightly quirky. I would have read this one happily had it been much longer than it is. Great cover photo, incidentally--very creepy indeed.


Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes
Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes
by Daniel Kehlmann
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars curate + egg, 27 Sep 2010
On the thin end of 3 stars. The book's been summarised in the other review, but I think the main theme is identity--losing, forsaking, defining or establishing it--and not the power of technology. For that matter, I think the book is appealingly clever rather than laden with metaphysical speculation.
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Fame, though not startlingly original or in any way remarkable, is entertaining enough (much of one chapter, about the travails of visiting a country that sounds like Turkmenistan, is quite funny). The quality though is terribly patchy. All the stories held my interest, but a few barely did; oddly, they're the ones centred on Kehlmann's apparent alter-ego, Leo. In fact, one of these was downright annoying: writing about an author interacting with one of his characters is just post-old hat.

The strong point of the book for me was its structure and the weak one its unevenness. My copy won't go straight to the charity shop but it certainly won't take pride of place on my bookshelf, either.


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