Category Archives: Review

The Magic Paint Review

The Magic Paint Review

The world, as painted by Primo Levi, is a hokey, calloused place. As stuffed full of surreal bureaucracy as it is twisted by mankind’s ineptitude; as prickly as it is accommodating; and as intriguing as it is cruelly frustrating.The Magic Paint by Primo Levi

Like a bowl full of strange fruit, the eight short stories in this collection are no exception, and by carefully eschewing dialogue, Levi gives the stories the ethereal timbre of a voiceless choir. From animals courting smalltalk at a party, through to modern gladiators, the deadly craze of Knall, and the curse of a perfect poem, the stories are hard and sharp, while offering surprising comfort to the morass of modern life.

So if you like your reading with some bite, or to draw blood, or with an aftertaste of the bizarre, then get yourself a copy of this collection, strap yourself down and get ready to watch the psychedelic paint dry.

Through the Wall Review

Through the Wall Review

Bleak and quietly disturbing, the short stories of Petrushevskaya portray a shadowy world that feeds equally on the social ails of the modern world, and the earthy magic of the old kingdom.

The stories in this collection–Through the Wall, The Father, The Cabbage-Patch Mother, Marilena’s Secret, and Anna and Maria–are fine examples of the modern faerie tale: part horror story, part moral hazard, and part something nameless.

As the cast of listeners, lovers, nurses, wizards, and dancers journey through realms of endless woods and monotone cities, you’re left with an inkling it’s only the thinnest veil of hope that keeps the darkness from swallowing us whole.

Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady Review

Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady Review

There’s no obvious way to review a collection of Robert Coover’s short stories, no conspicuous handle with which to hold the text, no praise likely to escape being labelled sycophancy, and no criticism that wouldn’t rightly be mocked as bitter jealously. Reviewing Coover is painful, and not because of any pretensions it gives one to write like him, but rather because of the pretensions it instills to read him without being intimidated.

Whether its the romantic irony of the collection’s eponymous story, the fetid titillation of “The Babysitter”, or the frivolous mundanity of “A Pedestrian Accident”, each story reads like you’re smacking yourself in the head with a flail; each leaves an admixture of blood and synovial fluid pouring from your ears; each feels sucking on the metallic teats of a shotgun’s barrels.

So if you’re happy to have your mind wrung out and twisted by a short collection of words, then I recommend you need look no further; if you prefer to keep your sense and thoughts well ordered, then why not go look for something off a best seller list.

The Sexes Review

The Sexes Review

The Sexes is a small collection of Dorothy Parker’s short stories about relationships, and is published as part of Penguin’s mini modern classics series.

The first story, the Sexes, is a masterclass in dialogue: taught, lucid, and oozing with an admixture of cultural, emotional and interpersonal tension. As a singular comment on the complex narrative that exists between the sexes, it is an aggressive shot across the bow against those that seek to deny the differences between the genders.

The Lovely Leave offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the intricacies that lie behind the facade of a loving relationship. An education for those yet to experience loving relationships, and a mirror for everyone else, it’s a pristine example of how to clothe reality in fiction.

Like all collections, not all stories are crafted equally, and the Little Hours is the runt of the litter, a meandering story with little purpose other than to showcase a litany of quotations and the sharp poise of Parker’s prose.

The final two stories, Glory in the Daytime and Lolita, bring the book to an ordered conclusion. Glory in the Daytime is a sharp vignette contrasting the human costs of fame against the droll existence of normalcy, and Lolita is a strange but elegant story of the smallness of attitude fostered by small town life.

The Sexes is an perfectly tempered collection of short stories that not only underlines the genius of Dorothy Parker, but also serves as a intricate lesson about the complexities of human emotion and sexual politics. And apart from being a taut read, it serves as a gentle reminder that–for those willing to look–the richness of life is there to marvel at just beyond the graceful vision of our eyes.

Portrait Of an Artist as an Old Man Review

Portrait Of an Artist as an Old Man Review

While it’s often mooted that an author’s first novel serves as an autobiographical catharsis for the author, there is little if any consensus about the relationship between an author and their last novel. With this quandary steadfast in his thoughts, Eugene Pota, a world-renown author and aging cassanova, tries to unravel this enigmatic relationship while producing a novel that lives up to the past glories of his literary career, and in particular his first book – which rightly earned him a place in the history of literature.

Tracing the inner workings of the writing process, from the intimate embarrassment of writers block, through to the mystifying otherworldliness of success and the dizzying and perpetual fear of rejection, the issues deftly rendered in Heller’s last, posthumously published novel, transcends the barrier between fiction and autobiography and depicts the mesmerizing struggle between an author and a novel.

As Pota plants an array of weak, desperate plots and follows the subsequently questionable prose that grows uncontrollably weed-like, the heart rending sense of failure looms ever closer and ever larger, as Pota heroically tries to avoid coming to terms with the closing chapter of his career. With every turn of page in a literary race for time, and as the growing failing of Pota’s writing skills becomes apparent, the question that constantly assails the reader is whether Pota can overcome the overwhelming self-doubt and loneliness of writing and arrive at an idea from which to grow his final novel. Dragging the reader through meetings with his past muses, his literary agent and various facets of his life, through until the heady conclusion of the culminating chapter, a foreboding sense looms over the reader that not only Eugene Pota’s career rests on the success of his last book, but also the sanctified career of the Heller himself.

While the simplicity and measured pace of Portrait of the Artist suitably counters the complexity and mayhem of Catch-22, the high quality crafting of the writing, leaves the book as a laudable reminder and farewell from a master of humour. Ably pulling itself out from the shadow of Catch-22 and standing as a provocative example of how artful a final novel can be, it would not only make Eugene Pota proud, but also serves as a deserved slight to GK Chesteron’s ridiculous assertion that: A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” This is not only a great novel, but it’s also one that tells us the truth about its hero, the truth about its author and the truth of writing process. A definitive read for anyone even vaguely interested in the creative as well as the receptive side of literature.

The Second Sex Review

The Second Sex Review

The Second Sex Book CoverSimone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex sat on my bookshelf for 5 years. It was picked up, dusted off, and thumbed through many times, but even after 2 serious attempts to read it from cover to cover the book sat defiant, its secrets safe and its intellectual rigour uncontested. If I’d conceived of a way to maintain my honour and consign the book to the bin, or worse, a charity shop, then it would have gone years ago. However, the pig-headed male in me couldn’t accept  a philosophical tract could be beyond my reading ability or intellect, and so I stubbornly picked up the book again and forced myself on the tome once again.

Having now finished the book, I’m ready, nay forced, to write something of my experience, because although not an easy read The Second Sex is a book that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my days. Its blend of history, philosophy, psychology, and sociology makes it an encompassing tract on Women’s place in history and contemporary life, and as such it’s an enticing read for anyone wanting to understand or at least investigate the social division between the genders.

But however enticing the book may be, it is also a hard book, and not because it contains ideas that sit uncomfortably within contemporary male-oriented society, nor because it lays the blame for gender inequality squarely on both genders, but because of the depth of its underlying research and the sheer volume of ideas it generates pertaining to the female condition.

Before my praise becomes indefensibly obsequious, I should point out the book has—like most philosophy books—many rough edges and fallible arguments, including frequent subjective musings from De Beauvoir that are based more on her whim than on reason itself, but these meanderings do nothing to diminish the intellectual spotlight that the book shines on the subject matter.

Although there are many later feminist books and books on gender studies that expand or contradict The Second Sex, this is a book that, above all, extols the feminist virtue of freedom: women’s freedom from sexual service; women’s freedom from the chains of marriage; but also men’s freedom from their gender’s historical role as the counterpart and gaoler of women.

This is not an easy read, but like a mountain there are many routes through the book, be it as a required text for students, or as a dusty tome to be pecked at gradually over years. Although the gender landscape has changed massively since De Beauvoir published The Second Sex, as a thorough examination of woman’s place alongside man in history and society this is a timeless and a critical read. For anyone that wants to grasp why the physical and physiological differences between the genders doesn’t excuse or even require the mental divide that cuts through the ages, then go get yourself a copy and a darned comfy seat.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Review

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Review


Poliphilo kneels before Queen Eleuterylida

Poliphilo kneels before Queen Eleuterylida

One of my personal goals for 2010 was to read through all the books on the unread books shelf in my lounge, the home for books that either don’t grab my interest, or that are heavy enough  to require significant bravery or brandy before opening. Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse dwelled on the shelf for a year or so, as did Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, and an anthology of  Isiah Berlin’s essays, The Proper Study of Mankind, has grown dusty in the corner for at least 3 years.

I was therefore happy to pluck the Hyperotomachi Poliphili, or, as it is sometimes known in English, Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream, off the shelf a couple of months ago. A 500-year old text written, purportedly, by Venetian monk Francesco Colonna, it tells the story of Poliphilo as he journeys through his dreams searching for his dream lover, the entrancing Polia. With a recursive plot and a cast full of beautiful nymphs, the text is as charming as it is colourful, and as Poliphilo, and then Polia, wend their way through the fantastic dream-scape, the symbolism builds from a classic veneer into an intricate and integral seam that runs contiguously through the book’s pages.

Undoubtedly the most fascinating and notable facet of the book is Poliphilo’s obsessive focus on architecture. Hardly a page passes when he doesn’t marvel at some form of stonework, architecture, or other construction-based aesthetic  ideal, which coupled with the text’s deep descriptive style would be challenging to even the  most architecturally adroit of contemporary readers. While the architecture is occasionally tempered with narrative flourishes on couture and music, the text is nonetheless a normative example of the Renaissance style and serves as an apt illustration of the cultural revolution that sired it.

Although  my general taste  for simplicity meant the endless symbolism and ceaseless ode to architecture dulled my interest the more I read, as an exposition of the Renaissance Zeitgeist the book serves as a priceless window into a bygone cultural age. So while I’ve now moved the book from my unread books shelf, I’ve been left wondering if I should create  a new shelf for books I’ve read but failed to understand apart from as cultural artefacts, which, of course, would also make the perfect home for Virgina Woolf’s insane ramblings.

A Word Child Review

A Word Child Review

A Word Child by Iris Murdoch

There is one egregious facet of my Vintage Classics edition of A Word Child, which is the clumsy quote on the front cover from The Times: “Iris Murdoch is incapable of writing without fascinating and beautiful colour.”  While only an illiterate would dare contest the fascinating colour of Murdoch’s writing, it would be crass to attribute this particular book with beautiful colour, as it is with artful poise that Murdoch draws a very real, but suitably drab, monochrome rendition of London.

Into this necessarily murky landscape is captured the complex frailties of human relationships and the fragile edifice of social behaviour that draws the reader through the guilt-ridden, habitual purgatory of the protagonist, Hilary Burde’s, passive reminiscence of life.  Engraved with Murdoch’s legendary intelligence on every line of prose, the procession of pages beguile the reader with a fabulous charade of pain; a calamitous world of sickening sibling relationships, haunting nostalgia and naive virgin worship.

After the plot weaves into a powerful tapestry that depicts a childish renouncement of responsibilities, the story then unfurls itself into a disaster of farcical proportions and  displays, what can earnestly be called, one of the most cunningly paced and thoroughly unblemished examples of demonstrating genius with mere words.