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monica (Ireland)

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The Dinner
The Dinner
by Herman Koch
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Spoilers throughout,, 31 Oct. 2013
This review is from: The Dinner (Paperback)
because 1) this review's for those who can't be bothered to read the book but are mildly curious about why it's so popular, and 2) the odds are good that you wouldn't care enough about what happens in it to feel anything so strong as surprise anyway.

Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner at one of Heston Blumenthal's, whoops can't imagine where that came from, at a restaurant with pretensions. That restaurant is the star of the book and its redeeming feature: Koch does a wonderful job of satirising the sort of place where the appearance of a plate of food and the provenance of each element on it--described at length by the maitre d'--is all and where customers whilst basking in the exclusivity sold there must struggle to suppress display of curiosity when a famous person enters. This portrayal is every bit as much fun as the similar scene in Bonfire of the Vanities.

Ah, but the narrator is victim of a madey-uppey condition, a personality disorder that could have been detected by amniocentesis, and has a history of violent behavior. And his son has in the end killed at least two people, as has his nephew. The nephew's adopted brother is an extortionist, the narrator's wife orders the first two lads murder the last, the narrator's sister-in-law connives at an attack upon her husband, and the ones who've not murdered are all guilty of aiding and abetting. So, that's six of seven in the family who are criminals, and given that the seventh is a politician it might in fact be a clean sweep. I couldn't help imagining a daytime soap opera about the tribulations of the Jukes family, and it's all so preposterous that it's almost funny.

Apparently breaking a glass and using it as a stabbing implement is a skill not unknown to bourgeoises Dutch housewives. Apparently people never vote for a candidate with facial disfiguration, if you pretend there's no such thing as Georgia. Or sympathy votes. Apparently some readers will have figured out why this lot did the very thing that would lose yer man the election when their aim was to have him win it. I think.

Not an awful book but restaurant aside not a remotely credible one. 2 1/2 stars.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 23, 2015 8:32 PM GMT


Seven Years
Seven Years
by Peter Stamm
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars same old same old, 11 Sept. 2013
This review is from: Seven Years (Paperback)
2 1/2 stars

This seems to me the sort of book that might if written in English have been a Booker Prize or National Book Award nominee: middle-brow, mid-market, and doggedly domestic with smooth if unremarkable writing free of freshness, atmosphere and of any other quality that would make it stand out from similar books. In fact, for me it was so nearly free of interest that in the end I resorted to skimming.

The plot's been ably sketched in another review, but it's a plot Stamm doesn't build upon: A great deal might have been made of the narator's almost obsessional desire for Ivona, of the sense of power their encounters give him, of Ivona's own obsession with whatsisname and its effect on her life. But it wasn't. After the standard account of Uni Days, Uni Mates, & Uni Ambitions the book settles into flatness. If you can imagine someone whose diary entries are brief notes on the day just passed going back later to flesh them out, you can imagine what much of this book is like--'Visited a German battlement--kissed Sonia.' 'Party at Ruediger's. His mother's gemutlich. Met a boring veterinarian there.' 'Stayed in my room after I got back from work. I think Birgit's going off the deep end.' Expand those notes into long passages and you have a Seven Years.

By the way, anyone who's not already learned how misleading--'the makings of an existential classic'--or downright idiotic--'a novel to make you doubt your own dogma'--blurb can be couldn't find a better lesson than the cautionary one coming with this book.


The Last of the Vostyachs (Dedalus Europe 2012)
The Last of the Vostyachs (Dedalus Europe 2012)
by Diego Marani
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars crazy quilt, 2 April 2013
I was delighted to find several reviews of a translated novel with no detectives in it here, a couple of them very thoughtful and one giving an excellent synopsis. But I'm glad I didn't see them before reading the book because my expectations for it would have been rather disappointed ones . . . and so I'm throwing in tuppence to alert any other odd man out who might find problems with the writing.

Last of the Voystachs held my attention, was occasionally touching, and passages and strands in it might prove memorable. But I wish Marani had written another draft before publishing, one in which he'd managed to achieve consistency of tone or, better still, harmony of tones. It wouldn't be impossible for a writer so good as he to mix humour with pathos, the absurd with the weighty, and violence with nostalgic yearning; here, though, those elements are irregular patchwork rather than coherent whole. And because they were they competed with, even undermined, each other: The compassion Marani makes the reader feel for Ivan is lessened by the attention given the sit-com ex-wife; the wonderful descriptions of nature and weather are weakened by the account of the Laplander's anxious drive to the beach; the thoughtful passages about linguistics lose a lot of their impact when followed by the attempt to get drunk a woman with a hollow leg. Moreover, changes in viewpoint sometimes also have this patchy quality: the account of two professors meeting in a summer cottage, for example, is often awkward because Marani shifts point of view without making clear enough whose viewpoint is being given.

I think this book might have a special appeal to British readers because like many comic British novels it has a far-fetched, very plotty, terribly broad treatment of the humourous. But there's much more to it than the farcical and I'd recommend it to anyone as a book well worth reading: It's a quite good novel that could with more care and better balance have been a very powerful one.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 21, 2017 10:26 PM BST


About Time (B-Format Paperback)
About Time (B-Format Paperback)
by Simona Sparaco
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a waste of my time, but not bad, 29 Mar. 2013
(2 1/2 stars) Had I read the blurb more carefully I would never have bought this. My visit to the bookshop was a hurried one, though, and on the basis of a quick browse, a glance at the blurb, and, especially, of its being published by Pushkin I took it.

A high-flyer of the sort who's by now a stock character--penthouse, Barbie women, hefty stash of coke, meals in trendy restaurants--suddenly finds that his sense of time has gone awry: Life around him has taken on a great speed and he's lagging behind. What are hours, in other words, to everyone else are only a few minutes to him. His work of course suffers, his social life comes unglued, and he falls into what I think is meant to be a state of anguished and depressed soul-searching, though actually his condition seems the emotional equivalent of a mild cold. As you'd expect he re-evaluates his values and behaviour and as you'd expect the plot development that you've seen coming since page 30 proves his redemption.

By amazon standards this book is 2 stars, but the rating guidelines seem to me formed for 3-year-olds, equating personal taste with critical judgement. For me, the book is predictable, one-dimensional, and riddled with holes in reasoning and plot, but those are things I sometimes forgive in books that otherwise appeal to me. And that I was so bored as to skim bits was perhaps due to my lack of interest in the story's main theme as much as to the author's failure to engage me. The writing itself is smooth, and nothing about the book is silly or stupid. I've given it 2 1/2 stars because of this and because it's a novel that I think many people would enjoy and find satisfying. About Time might especially appeal to people who like reasonably intelligent chick-lit books with a twist, like My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time or The Elegance of the Hedgehog, or who think 'heart-warming' a recommendation; I hope they'll try it. (In their thousands. Millions, even. Enough to allow Pushkin to issue translations of obscure and challenging books without having to raise funds by publishing negligible stuff like this.)

If by the way the notion of a story about a character's unusual perception of time appeals to you, do look into Jacques Spitz's The Eye of Purgatory, two novellas playing with the theme. Neither has literary pretensions but they're original and entertaining and I emphatically prefer them to this book. (And of course I found that stock character far more interesting in Ellis's American Psycho, which as a bonus is completely free of endearing children and heart-warming moments.)
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 2, 2013 10:35 PM BST


Fra Keeler
Fra Keeler
by Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.32

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars disturbed narrator, disturbing narrative, 4 Mar. 2013
This review is from: Fra Keeler (Paperback)
3/12 stars.

Most unusually, I ordered Fra Keeler on the basis of its description on the publisher's site and read online reviews only after finishing it. I'm glad I did; some of the reviews give too much away, some make the novel sound too worthy or difficult to be enjoyable, some helpfully point out aspects that led me to return to the book, and all would have forestalled my apparently eccentric conclusion that the narrator's problems were symptoms of a physical rather than emotional disorder.

A man buys a house in hopes that by living in it he will discover how the previous owner, Fra Keeler, died. He finds clues, he receives a strange parcel and mysterious phone calls, he takes a walk in a canyon, and in the end he's obliged to account for himself. Until a climactic event (an event which is handled beautifully but that for some reason seems to me somehow ever so slightly discordnant) there's little action other than that. Most of the book comprises the man's thoughts about objects--a skylight, a 'yurt' (shed?), papers referring to Fra Keeler--and people--the postman, the old woman, the visitor, all of whom seem in league against him--he encounters and, especially, the chains of reasoning (perhaps sophistical, though they seemed to me logical) by which he determines, for example, that there is no present and that everything beyond the body's confines is death.

Throughout the book the narrator is disoriented by memory loss, dizziness, confusion, unexpected bouts of deep sleep, and possible episodes of blindness and aphasia. The author conveys a pervasive sense of that disorientation very well indeed: I stopped reading at one point to make a cup of tea and had my mug not been where I remembered putting it I might for a moment have panicked. Moreover, the writing is careful and smooth, the novel isn't without humour, the canyon walk is memorable, and Vliet Oloomi has taken an idea that an inferior writer might have made the basis for a lurid and ordinary book and developed it into a story that is subtle and thought-provoking. And it's very nice to be able to wholeheartedly recommend a book from so tiny a press . . . .
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 23, 2013 11:11 AM GMT


Justice Undone (Shad Thames Books)
Justice Undone (Shad Thames Books)
by Thor Vilhjalmsson
Edition: Paperback

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars those frolicsome Scandinavians are at it again, 26 Feb. 2013
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Even as I begin I know that I'm unlikely to give a good sense of this book, but I know too how little information is to be had about it so I'll soldier on however lamely.

Justice Undone tells of a true crime in the late 19th century--though it's far from being a crime novel and it's certainly not a historical one--and of a magistrate's judgement upon the criminals. The plot has neither complications nor twists, and really seems the basis of rather than a reason for the book. The characters can almost all be summed up in a word or two: one is elemental, another conflicted, another still is bitter. The writing does not read smoothly and at times feels quite awkward; moreover one short passage was as difficult to take in as one from Finnegans Wake would have been (no, I haven't read it either). The organisation of the book can be confusing--it wasn't till I'd read quite a good bit that I realised that two different crimes were being referred to and that more than one version of one of those was being recounted.

The plot underlies though themes, thorny and unanswered questions about morality and conformity, and magnificent descriptions of the Icelandic landscapes (searching on the net for 'Iceland landscape images' helped me appreciate these descriptions all the more), references to folk tales and sagas, portrayals of the brutal life led by peasants oppressed by the 'nobles', and unforgettably vivid dreams. And it seems almost as if we're shown the essence of the characters, who are anything but one-dimensional.

It was the writing style that I found most difficult to adjust to. Vilhjalmsson writes in a fairly conventional straightforward way when dealing with concrete matters like the hearing in court and at other times employs devices that aren't new to me: He's elliptical, uses sentence fragments, leaves unclear for awhile what a phrase or sentence refers to. But his diction is sometimes so odd that it stopped me dead in my tracks--a voice like 'a stalactite' is an example. On stopping to re-read such a phrase though I would usually discover a very good metaphor--in this instance, for a singer's groping for and then grasp of a very low note--and in the end I enjoyed being jolted by the way words were used.

The novel is very rich, highly rewarding, and I suspect ten years hence bits of it will suddenly occur to me now and then. I suspect too that I'll be returning to this page to add another half-star to my rating of it. . .


From Bonbon to Cha-cha: Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases (Oxford Paperback Reference)
From Bonbon to Cha-cha: Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases (Oxford Paperback Reference)
by Andrew Delahunty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.35

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars You too can make those interstices educational ones, 24 Feb. 2013
Aside from its being in itself a good solid book of interest, this is ideal for turning to during short waits of indeterminate length--when listening to Vivaldi over the telephone, whilst keeping a close eye on nearly-cooked kasha, or as you wait for the workman to come back into the house so you can shut the door after him when he does and so preserve at least a flipping modicum of heat in the hallway. No doubt it would be a good way to wean oneself off turning to Escape the Red Giant at such times, but this is only speculation.

As I've said, this is a solid book: It's a well-researched dictionary of foreign words used by English-speakers and not a nonce stocking-stuffer. l've not finished it and am hence reviewing a book I've not read through, but I know how it ends ('zwischenzug') and I feel certain there will be no dramatic twists between `digamma' and a chess move interposed in a sequence of play in such a way as to alter its outcome. Reading it I've learned, usually to my blushes, the true meaning of words whose definition I'd merely guessed or had learned, forgotten, and then confabulated: `Catechumen'--isn't that something to do with resin? ; `caoutchouc'--surely that's chewing gum? And the derivations are for me the most interesting thing in this book: `Chic' (probably) comes from German and `kaput(t)' , whose history is a Freudian treasure-trove of male anxiety, ultimately doesn't.

The entry for `capriccio' begins ` . . . Italian (literally, "head with the hair standing on end" , (hence) horror; later (by association with *capra* goat) sudden start, from *capo* head + *riccio* hedgehog, ultimately from Latin *(h)ericius* urchin)'. If this sort of thing delights you, as it does me, you'd do well to snap this book up. If it doesn't, still it would be worth having to hand as a reference book.

(eta, some time later: I've reached the entries for 'm' now. I think the people who named Marmite, Marmite weren't etymologists. And this is without doubt the same book as Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases (Oxford Paperback Reference).)


Venices (Pushkin Collection)
Venices (Pushkin Collection)
by Paul Morand
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.00

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: £4.07

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.


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