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monica (Ireland)

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Handling the Undead
Handling the Undead
by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars your average zombie has more life in it than this book does, 20 Dec 2009
This review is from: Handling the Undead (Paperback)
The usual weather is awry: a prolonged drought, days of stifling heat in Stockholm. People walk the streets clutching their heads, overcome by headaches and a strange whirring noise. Caterpillars worm their way through concrete blocks. There are those who believe that death is near. Cue a violent storm and. . .the zombies surface. How could you go wrong with a book beginning like this?

If you really must know, read it and find out for yourself. Oh, what fun ideas and oh, what a chance to load a book with atmosphere. Instead we get a sort of chick-lit horror story. The bulk of the book is devoted to one of the interchangable characters' attempts to revive the grandson who recently died. Most of the rest of it is given over to a grieving widower and his child. We're told about family conflicts, maternal love, self-harming, unhappy adolescents. We're neither told nor shown much else, but rather given tantalising snippets about the zombies' physiology, their effect upon the living, the way they're dealt with by doctors and city officials. The fact that these are only snippets, hastily passed over in favour of the tedious family goings-on, is maddening: All the book has going for it is some good ideas for a horror story, and those are soon forsaken.

Perhaps this isn't a form of chick-lit: no shopping, no fits of giggling, no romance, no grown women referring to themselves as 'girls'. In that case, I've no idea how the book would be classified: it isn't suspense or horror or psychological study. And it certainly isn't entertainment.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 11, 2014 8:21 AM BST

L'Assommoir (Classics)
L'Assommoir (Classics)
by Emile Zola
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a masterpiece, 3 Nov 2009
If you've never read Zola, please take note of other reviewers who after reading one of his books have ordered another, even if not ordinarily given to reading 19th-century French novels.

Gervaise comes to Paris with her lover and their two children. Lantier, her partner, deserts her but she soon drifts into marriage with a solid workingman. All goes smoothly until this husband, Coupeau, is injured on the job. Good-hearted Gervaise nurses him back to health though not back to work, but still, through the good graces of an infatuated neighbour, she acquires her own business. She is successful--to her neighbours' envy--but at the acme of her happiness Lantier reappears and gradually her life falls into decline.

A couple of things that interest me about the story are Gervaise's tragic flaw and Zola's scheme. Gervaise has ambition and spirit, but what ultimately drags her down is nothing more than what used to be called complaisance and now is called 'going with the flow.' Neither she nor any of the other characters is wicked or altogether intolerable (except for the dreadul Lalie); their failings are not on a grand scale. Nor do Zola's notions of the primacy of heredity need to be used to account for these people's foibles. The environment of poverty he describes is sufficient for that.

There are despite the bleakness comic scenes and characters (Mme Lerat, e.g., who though brooking no obscenities manages to find a salacious meaning in the most innocent of remarks). And though I usually merely tolerate descriptive passages, Zola's descriptions bring an immediacy and sensuality that no one else's do. I loathe over-heated rooms and the smell of meat cooking, but how I long to be at that name-day feast; I've no interest in 19th-century laundry techniques and I dislike violence, but Zola makes me want to stand at that laundry door and watch the fight; I'm not given to fondling teenagers, but golly, Nana sounds squeezable. Today I looked up into a bright autumnal sky and felt a tiny bit of what it must be to be cold and starving and looking up into a yellow dusk over a city with the smell of snow in the air.

This was I think my 5th reading of the book and still I enjoy and admire it enormously. Please give it a try.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 22, 2009 12:12 PM GMT

Miss Webster and Cherif
Miss Webster and Cherif
by Patricia Duncker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.18

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars a contractual obligation sort of novel, 3 Nov 2009
This book was a disappointment. I'd read and enjoyed The Deadly Space Between and Hallucinating Foucault and had high hopes for this. But it seems hastily written, badly patched together, and altogether inconsequential.

The plot has been summarised; what hasn't been mentioned is that the major twist in it is given away in a terribly heavy-handed way half way through. And in places the writing was quite awkward, particularly in dialogues in which the interlocutors misunderstand each other: More than once Duncker repeatedly shifts point of view in these and repeatedly resorts to telling us what he thought she meant and what she thought he meant. Doesn't make for smooth reading.

Moreover, Duncker all too often settles for stereotypes: the discounted aging person who is to boot a plain-spoken indomitable type with beneath it all a good heart who lives in a village where (oh, my aching sides) residents are in dispute over whether a lane should be paved. British writers really do need to acknowledge that neither adorable tough old birds in tweeds nor petty village ructions are uniquely British. Nor, for my money, are they particularly endearing or humourous. Throw in a Romeo and Juliet romance, an understanding doctor who has himself suffered, a black chap of immense dignity, and a rejuvenation wrought by contact with youth and whizz bang that's pretty much the lot. The descriptions of Morocco are very good, but the Moroccan aspect of the story is all but irrelevant.

I suppose I'd give the book 2 1/2 stars for those descriptions, because Duncker seems to see (can't swear to this, because by this point I wasn't reading closely) another side to the Twin Towers attacks, and because while the book is sloppy it's never really stupid.

If you like slightly fluffy, heartwarming, not-really-stupid books like The Yacoubian Building or The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you might like this. If you're more in for the dark and strange, try the other Duncker books I mentioned.
Comment Comments (5) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 5, 2011 12:05 PM GMT

The Sea Below My Window (Masterworks of Fiction)
The Sea Below My Window (Masterworks of Fiction)
by Ole Sarvig
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.74

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars where am I? who am I? why is ole sarvig messing my head about?, 23 Sep 2009
A woman wakes in a room she doesn't recognise. Her face in the mirror is one she's never seen and it's only when she talks to herself that she learns she's an English speaker. Mastering her panic, she leaves the building to explore the surrounding town as night falls. The description of her wanderings is lingering and haunting: Darkened terraces, a procession carrying a coffin to the quay, endless staircases, a sacrament performed in a nearly empty cathedral, a street in which a line of new cars recedes to one of horse-drawn carriages.

Eventually the woman finds a name and a place amongst a set of ex-pats whom she might have known and who might regard her kindly. There really are too many episodes portraying rather dull encounters between these people, but somehow each reinforces a sense of menace. Very occasionally Miriam, the protagonist, feels a sense of recognition; less infrequently, she feels that someone or something is threatening her. In the end the mystery is solved. Or not.

There's a point at which the plot and dialogue suddenly become Dan Brown channelling Tom Clancy. In any other case I'd find this retch-making, but here it was only mildly bothersome, either because the book had as it were cast a spell or because I had long since stopped taking it at face value. Nonetheless, this bit leads to some explanations which, if taken literally, are pretty thoroughly implausible. The resolution, the final passage of the book, seems an either/or matter but it's either/or in a fractal sort of way.

I imagine one could read this book as a mystery, a thriller, a theological allegory, or a meditation upon the nature of identity or even consciousness. Some passages seem like a prose interpretation of 'The Wasteland'. In any case it's something I know I'll want and need to read again, and it is by Amazon standards ('omigod I'm like I totally loved it') a 5-star book.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 22, 2009 12:15 PM GMT

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie (Great Discoveries)
Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie (Great Discoveries)
by Barbara Goldsmith
Edition: Paperback

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars worth reading but hardly earth-shattering, 11 Sep 2009
Another review has summed up the content well. The book was quite interesting, but not fascinating; it described what Curie was like, but in a rather two-dimensional way; it dealt with a bit of Curie's scientific work, but not in great depth. I'm glad to have learned more about Curie's life and of how strenuously she strove to succeed--and of how much would have been lost had she as a foreigner and a woman been kept in her 'place'--but on the whole the book strikes me as being best suited to teen-agers with an interest in science.

Dark Paradise (Finnish Literature)
Dark Paradise (Finnish Literature)
by Rosa Liksom
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars scandinavians are a light-hearted people, 5 Sep 2009
3 1/2 stars. Very short stories--most of them a page or two--that are more like snapshots than stories, and more like film clips than snapshots. A few of them have something resembling a plot, e.g. one beginning 'Tonight I am going to find myself a man': off to the hotel bar, find a suitable mark, up to his room, order up caviar, undress, refresh makeup, say good-night to doorman. Mission accomplished; the narrator had been able to show her brand-new lace-patterned body stocking from Paris (and show nothing more) to someone. There's a high body count in the book but the murders are recounted at the same pitch and in the same detached way as everything else is and so the violence seems slightly absurd rather than realistic. For the most part the stories begin and end at what seem like arbitrary points in time, have no dialogue, and don't engage one emotionally. (The last is no bad thing, and Liksom's intentions whatever they are aren't to pull at the heartstrings.) Having said that, one story (on Good Friday an immigrant re-enacts Jesus's trudge to Golgotha for the villagers) is touching, and one of my favourites has dialogue, a funny one at that--a monk and a woman in a fur coat travel to a country house. The monk goes to the kitchen, fiddles about with an amazing array of expensive gadgets, and serves the woman dinner whereupon she remarks apropos of nothing 'Such a naively theistic image of God fails to answer the existential questions of postmodern man.'

For some reason Daniil Kharms kept coming to mind as I read this, but any relation between him and Liksom is a fairly distant one. Despite the extreme simplicity of the book I feel I didn't take it all in and so shall be re-reading it.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 4, 2014 9:06 PM BST

Small Lives
Small Lives
by Pierre Michon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.60

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars small lives, important book, 5 Sep 2009
This review is from: Small Lives (Paperback)
I've rounded up from 4 1/2 stars. I'd give it ten stars if I could just to encourage people to read the damned thing. This book has won prizes, this translation won a big prize, Small Lives is well-known in France, it's worth three dozen Martin Amis's, and it seems to be all but unheard-of here.

Because it's been a while since I read it, this review won't have much detail. The book is about eight people living in deeply rural France. There are feuds, disappearances, disappointments. There is a death brought about by a man's refusal to admit to his illiteracy. A priest conducts services in an empty church. Happenings and doings and people about which the outside world knows nothing, cares nothing, but that are the world in these small lives. What Robb has to say about peasant life in The Discovery of France is brought to life here, but most of the events and interactions in the book would not seem unfamiliar to inhabitants of any rural area that's kept many of its old ways.

Small Lives is beautifully written. The people seem real (well, they are to a degree) and the places, both landscape and interiors, are evocative and exquisitely drawn. Michon is able to alter his style and tone seamlessly and appropriately and he always draws the reader along with him.

Because the book is apparently highly autobiographical, some of the lives are of those of Michon's family. It's natural that we should get to know the narrator/Michon, just as it's natural that in so small a settlement each person has a strong connection with the others. Gradually it's he who becomes the main character in the book, and that's the only quibble I have. The change in focus is smooth, the literary and personal reasons for the change are easy to understand, but I would rather have learned more about Father Bandy than Michon's broken love affair, more about Claudette than Michon's addiction, more about the field gone back to the wild than Michon's dead sister. It makes no sense, inasmuch as the writer's life has been eventful and turbulent and the lives of his other subjects were neither, but whilst Michon is always interesting to read, he's most interesting when delineating others' small lives. No doubt that's an idiosyncratic reaction and no doubt other readers will find the book richer and of greater depth when the story-teller becomes the story.

Something to Hide: The Life of Sheila Wingfield, Viscountess Powerscourt
Something to Hide: The Life of Sheila Wingfield, Viscountess Powerscourt
by Penny Perrick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.84

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars good biography of a little-known poet, 5 Sep 2009
There are people who consider women's misfortunes--or even misdoings, as in 'he coerced her into kidnapping/beating/neglecting that child'--the result of victimisation by men. They would adore a brief description of this poet's life: Forbidden to read as a child, she was not allowed by her husband to frequent literary circles. Despite this, despite wretchedly ill health, despite no one understanding her, she rose at 3:00 each morning to write poetry. Those same people would probably not much like this book.

Wingfield did have an awful childhood, primarily because her mother was a ghastly parent (just as Wingfield would prove to be). She was indeed expected to lead the life of her set--the hunt, dances, cleverness not allowed here--but was soon old enough and rich enough to live as she pleased had she wanted to. Her husband's prohibition was one of Wingfield's many lies. Her illness was at the very least in part psychosomatic, not helped by her ingestion of drink and downers. The victims in this book were the spouse and offspring. Well-researched, well-written, and more sympathetic to Wingfield than I've implied. It's helpful as well that a selection of Wingfield's poems is included. Great book for a rainy afternoon.

Zeropolis: The Experience of Las Vegas (Topographics)
Zeropolis: The Experience of Las Vegas (Topographics)
by Bruce Begout
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Vegas: a modern, Amercian version of 'City of Dreadful NIght', 5 Sep 2009
It's worse than I had thought: Not just cheesy has-been singers performing for huge adulating audiences, not just zombies sitting for hours at the slot machines, but a street whose length is arcaded with neon lights; a roof-top sprinkler that sprays pedestrians reduced to a 'floppy relaxation' by the night time heat; crowds gathering to watch a phoney (and unconvincing) volcano that erupts every 15 minutes. Begout has a lot to say about Las Vegas. He's sometimes scathing, but the tone is overall one of thoughtfulness and the content is always thought-provoking. The book is a series of essays or meditations (some chapters are 'The Transfiguration of Banality', 'The Conspiracy of Chance,' and 'Offerings to the Fun God') that I suspect I'll be dipping into often.

Like the other Topographics books I've read this one is pretty much unclassifiable. Like the others it's a very personal take on a place and wanders here and there rather than travelling from A to B--and is all the better for that.

Begout sometimes over-generalises to the point of unfairness--how can he possibly know what all those passers-by are thinking, or how they passed the bus journey to the city?--and reaches some conclusions that are argueable: The appeal of gambling may indeed as he says lie in that moment of 'pure possibility' before the outcome is known, but does it follow that the secondary goal is to lose? But it scarcely matters, and he makes excellent points about fun and the spectacle. 'Fun,' he believes, is the puerile as opposed to the youthful, the fleeting thrill that leaves no trace as opposed to recreation, which heightens vitality. In Las Vegas, one can have all the fun one desires because all desires are fulfilled there. Because these desires are surveilled, as it were, they are controlled and the spectacle of fun is all one does desire even while it sucks out the essence of and replaces real life. Begout's solution: High-tail it outta that place, boy, while you still can.

One other thing about Reaktion publications--the books themselves are often great things, with end-flaps, thick pages, and a good feel. (And this one has many gorgeous photographs of the grotesque.) For me, it would be well worth buying Zeropolis new rather than slightly battered.

The Seven Madmen (Extraordinary Classics)
The Seven Madmen (Extraordinary Classics)
by Roberto Arlt
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a modern classic in first-draft form, 5 Sep 2009
3 1/2 stars

Remo Erdosain knows his soul to be only a centimetre square, circumscribed by no one and contained within nothing. This brings moments of intense and vividly-described anguish, relieved by the faint hope that something will happen: if he stands in the street looking sufficiently tortured, perhaps a millionaire will take him up. Instead he's latched onto by a man with a plan to take over the country and perhaps the world.

Halfway through the book I almost decided to give it up and move on to another. It was less than enthralling and those anguished moments had become too repetitious for even the most fervent of superfluous man groupies. I'm glad I carried on reading. Erdosain remains someone willing to kill himself or another simply to prove to himself his existence, but he finds something so appealing in the coup plot that he daydreams of (very funny) variations of it in which he becomes Lord of the Universe.

The book is as mentioned very sloppy. It's repetitious, the author of those abruptly-introduced footnotes changes, and the contintuity is weak. It seems to be a first draft whose pages were slightly shuffled and written by a person in a tearing hurry. But the sloppiness is organisational; the writing itself is fine. Only once was I pulled up short, by five heads falling upon a table. (They were heads of sleeping men, not products of the guillotine.) Otherwise, it was a smoother read than the sort of metaphor-laden fiction praised as 'well-crafted'.

And despite the anguish abandonment & despair, Arlt can be very funny. Erdosain finds it difficult to maintain that millionaire-baiting pose because his eyes turn to the legs of passing women. The world-domination plans are wonderfully loopy in some of the details. The messiah with which the masses will be drugged will be 'someone in between Krishnamurti and Rudolph Valentino.' Erdosain has a long talk with a friend's wife that is so immediately reminiscent of Dostoevsky that it's surely a pastiche; it ends with feet being kissed not out of heartfelt Russian self-abnegation but in gratitude for the inspiration for blackmail.

I don't know this hasn't become at the least a cult classic. It's well worth reading; in the end, the biggest problem with it is that it makes other fiction seem anaemic.

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