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review 2017-10-08 14:11
Four stories of the man as a young artist. For lovers of experimental literary fiction and New York.
4 3 2 1 - Paul Auster

Thanks to NetGalley and to Faber & Faber for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I’ve been following with interest the Man-Booker Prize this year and realised I had quite a few of the books on my list to be read and decided to try and read in a timely manner and see how my opinion compared to that of the judges. When the shortlist was announced, only one of the books I had read so far had made it, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a book I really enjoyed. And then I got the chance to read 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, another one of the novels shortlisted, and I could not resist.

I had read a novel by Paul Auster years back, The Book of Illusions and although I remember I enjoyed it, I had never read another one of his books until now. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I had always kept in mind that at some point I should pick up another one of his books but that day hadn’t arrived.

I hadn’t read anything about this novel before I started reading it, other than it had been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and therefore I was a bit surprised and confused, to begin with.

First, as happens with e-books, I had no idea how long it was. It’s around the 900 pages mark. Second, I didn’t realise it was a fairly experimental novel, or, at least its structure was not standard. The novel starts as if it was going to be a family saga, with the story of a Jewish immigrant arriving in New York, and we follow his story and that of his family for a couple of generations until we get to the birth of a boy, Archibald Ferguson. He doesn’t like his first name that much and for the rest of the novel he is referred to as Ferguson. When things start getting weird is when at some point you become aware that you are reading four different versions of his life. These are narrated in the third person, although always from the point of view of the character, and yes, they are numbered.  So the first chapter (or part), you would have 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and then, the next part would be 2.1… and so on. The story (stories) are told chronologically but chopped up into bits. Some of the reviewers have commented that you need to be a member of MENSA to remember and differentiate the various stories, because yes, there are differences (fate seems to play a big part, as sometimes due to incidents that happen to his family, financial difficulties, relationship issues… the story takes a different turn and deviates from the other versions), but these are not huge, and it is difficult to keep in your mind which one of the versions is which one (at times I would have been reading for a while before I could remember how this version was different to the one I had just been reading). Because the differences are not major (yes, in one version he ends up going to a university and in another to a different one, in one he works at a newspaper and in another starts writing books, in one he goes out with a girl and in another they are only friends…), and the characters are pretty much the same in all versions (although sometimes their behaviour is quite different) it makes the stories very similar. Added to that, all versions of the character are also very similar as if the different circumstances were not earth-shattering and had not affected that much the development of his boy (in the debate of nature, nurture, it’s safe to say Auster supports nature). The devil seems to be in the detail, or perhaps the point is that we might strongly believe that there are moments when our decisions could have sent us down one path or a completely different one (Sliding Doors anyone?), but the truth is that of all the infinite possibilities (and that makes me think of a book I read very recently, Do You Realize?) only one is conducive to life as we know it (the Goldilocks theory of life. Neither too hot nor too cold, just right) and our life was meant to be as it if.

Ferguson loves films and is a bit of a film buff (there are lengthy digressions about Laurel & Hardy, the French New Wave, American Films…), he also loves books and writing, and some versions of the story include his translations of French poets, or his own stories (that sometimes end up being exactly the same as the story we are reading, and others are either full stories or fragments of the books he is writing), and sports, mostly baseball, although also basketball.

Towards the end of the book (well, it’s a long book, so let’s say from the time the characters goes to college), we get much more detailed information about politics and historical events in America. There are lengthy descriptions of reactions to the murders of J.F.K, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, race riots, the Black Power Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, the Columbia University demonstrations and student political organisations, and also about New York and Paris (more New York than Paris) in the 1960s and early 70s. Although in one of the versions Ferguson is attending Columbia, he is a reporter and even when he is physically there, he narrates the events as an observer rather than as if he was personally involved. His engagement seems to be intellectual above all, no matter what version of Ferguson we read, although the reasons for his attitude might be different.

I don’t want to end up with a review as long as the book itself, and after checking other reviews of the book, I thought I’d share a couple I particularly liked, so you can have a look.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1909935118?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/paul-austers-novel-of-chance

What I thought the book did very well, in all its versions, was to capture the feelings and the thoughts of a teenager and young man (although, as I’m a woman, I might be completely wrong). Although the emphasis is slightly different in each version, that is fairly consistent and rings true. As a writer and film lover, I enjoyed the comments about books and movies, although these could be frustrating to some readers. I also enjoyed the works in progress of the various Fergusons (some more than others) but this could again be annoying to readers who prefer to follow a story and not wander and float in flights of fancy. I agree with some of the comments I’ve read that the latter part of the book is slowed down even more by the endless description of incidents at Columbia that, no matter the version of the story we read, are analytically reported rather than brought to life.

My main problem with the book is that I did not connect that much with the main character. Considering the amount of time readers get to spend with the different versions of Ferguson, we get to know him, but I did not feel for him. Strangely enough, sometimes I felt more connected to some of the other characters in the story (his mother in some versions, some of his friends, a teacher…) than I did to him. I’m not sure if it was because it all felt very artificial, or because none of the versions completely gelled for me. I admired his intellect but did not connect at an emotional level and I did not care for him. I’m aware that readers who know Auster’s oeuvre better have commented on the biographical similarities with his own life, and I’m aware that he has denied it is (or are) his story. There are, for sure, many points of contact. Some readers have compared it to books that have used a somewhat similar format to tell their stories, but as I haven’t read any, I will not comment on that. The ending, metafictional as was to be expected, will probably satisfy more those who enjoy formal literary experiments than those looking for a good story. I do not think many people will find it surprising, but I don’t think that was the author’s goal. The writing is good, sometimes deep and challenging, others more perfunctory. And yes, I still intend to read other Auster’s books in the future.

In sum, a fascinating exercise in writing, that will be of interest primarily to followers of Auster’s career, to those who love experimental literary fiction, particularly those interested also in films, literature, the writing process, sports, and New York. Not a book I’d recommend to those who love dynamic stories with exciting plots, or those who prefer to emotionally engage with characters. Ah, and it requires a reasonable memory and a serious investment of time.

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review 2017-02-14 04:47
Voyager (Outlander #3) (Audiobook)
Voyager - Davina Porter,Diana Gabaldon

Oh, Voyager. You get so many things right, but that one little thing...

 

I've said numerous times over this "reread" while I've listened to the audiobooks for the first time that one of the things Gabaldon does best is write fully realized characters, even third-tier characters, and she certainly continues to do that here. Her attention to detail, her descriptions, the way she lets the characters pop out of the page give them all life. It's really amazing.

 

And then there's Mr. Willoughby, or make that Yi Tien Cho, a Chinese refugee stowaway who landed in Scotland and was taken in by Jamie. First, I need to acknowledge that none of these characters are perfect. Even Claire, who comes from the more contemporary 1940s-1960s, has her prejudices and she doesn't even come close to how close-minded and insular everyone else is once we get back to the 1700s. So Cho's pure hatred of the white men isn't what bothers me. No, it's that he's a walking stereotype of all the worst things you can imagine about the Chinese. Even when I was reading this for the first time in my relatively clueless late-teens, Cho made me uncomfortable. Now, I was gritting my teeth nearly every time he was on the page. It was grating. There was not one redeeming trait to him, and to make it worse, he's the only Chinese character in either of these series - in fact, the only Asian character, which makes his representation even more troubling. So I'm glad he's only in this book and none of the others. And all because Gabaldon needed a way for Jamie, with his severe seasickness, to survive the crossing of the Atlantic. Because all Chinese know acupuncture, don't you know. *sigh*

 

But onto the good things, mostly John Grey.

Though I may just have to reread William falling into the privy in the next book some day. That scene is golden. Willie is just a prat and totally deserving of that fate. :D

(spoiler show)

The cast for those have just gotten too huge, the focus has moved away too much from Claire and Jamie, and they just refuse to end. Plus, all the rape. What is Gabaldon's obsession with rape? And while there's no on-page in this book for a change, we still have to hear about

poor Young Ian's recount of his rape by Gellie Duncan.

(spoiler show)

 

Other good things: the reunion between Claire and Jamie was great, and getting to see the Murrays again, even if just briefly, was fun. Fergus is all grown up and not yet a lazy drunk. Spending so much time on the Atlantic crossing could've been dull as hell, but Gabaldon keeps the tension up wonderfully with several adventures - though I do have to say this is the point where all these characters randomly running into each other gets a bit eye roll inducing. It's one thing when they're all confined to Great Britain because that's a tiny little island (sorry, my British friends, but it is), but when they're shipwrecking onto random islands and whatnot, I think it's okay to have them run into people they don't know in any capacity. 

 

And I do have to say, I prefer my Loa to come in the form of a hamburger-shaped drive-thru speaker than I do a creepy possessed mentally unstable white woman. Because problematic ableist tropes aside, who doesn't want their drive-thru speaker to also give them cryptic messages about the future?

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review 2016-08-06 04:01
Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander #3) (Audiobook)
Dragonfly in Amber - Diana Gabaldon,Davina Porter

This starts out much slower than I remembered. Like, a lot slower, and I found myself not really caring very much about anything that happens in Paris. Knowing the outcome, I just wanted to get the political intrigue over with, because who really cares about a clueless wannabe monarch who's barely in the story anyway, and just get back to Scotland already. I loved Fergus's introduction though, but all the stuff with Jack Randall was just...not necessary at all. And of course, this wouldn't be a Diana Gabaldon book without explicitly described rape scenes. =/ What is her obsession with rape?

 

The bookends with the stuff in the future wasn't very interesting either. I didn't like Bree much when she was first introduced and never really warmed up to her over the course of the series; that continues to be the case. Roger's an all right chap though. Every time he shows up, I want to give him a lozenge. ;)

 

Seeing Scotland again and seeing the campaign for independence take such a violent nosedive was as well done as I remembered though. You could feel the despair of these characters and cringe at the inevitability of it all. Knowing the future doesn't save you from it.

 

Davina Porter does as great a job here as the first one, though her voice for Roger was way too much like her voice for Jack Randall and was pretty distracting. I wish she'd have softened it up a little bit, to go along with his gentle nature.

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review 2016-08-03 03:32
When Skies Have Fallen
When Skies Have Fallen - Debbie McGowan

3.5 stars

 

This reminded me a lot of Kaje Harper's Into Deep Waters. Two guys meet during WWII, fall in love and decide to make a life together. One gets injured near the end of the war. We see them as they grow older, living through the various social and political changes and victories for gay rights. They get cats. And that's pretty much where the similarities end.

 

Arty and Jim are air force technicians, Arty for the Brits, Jim for the Americans. They first see each other at a dance hall, where the attraction is instant. They officially meet later at Jim's base when Jean, a friend of Arty's, finagles a "chance" meeting on a supply run. They figure out a way to see each other, meeting in an empty field between their two bases and slowly fall in love.

 

It was refreshing to see them actually get to know each other before falling into bed. Logistically, they couldn't have risked it sooner than they did (not that that would stop some authors - and you know who you are) and so the build up of their relationship fits the times and dangers that surround them. Unfortunately, a lot of the getting to know you gets summarized, though we do still get to see enough of it to see the connection between them. That's not really an issue.

 

What was an issue for me was that they had it so amazingly easy at the start. They're both missing from their bases for hours at a time while they're rendezvousing; this is never an issue. Arty's friends and sister, and Jim's mom, are all amazingly supportive; not really an issue either as there are others who are not that they need to be careful of. But even the nurse is on their side, and the others in the hospital don't seem to raise much of a fuss about anything either. They do come up against plenty of strife later though, as England during this time was extremely homophobic, to the point that gay POWs were made to serve their full prison sentences without taking into account the time already imprisoned by the Nazis. Plus, there were the "witch" hunts, extremely reminiscent of Gestapo searching for Jews, gays and everyone else they deemed unworthy. It was unsettling to read at times, and those parts of the story were very well done with evoking the tension and dread Jim and Arty had to live in.

 

I was ready to give this 4-stars until the very end, when I thought we'd get to read about Jim and Arty finally deciding to fight the system and instead it jumps to the epilogue several years later, where England has finally decriminalized homosexuality. I wanted to see more of the fight, to see Jim and Arty standing up and being strong together as a unit, and I didn't get that.

 

And this is just a personal nitpick, but I'm not a fan of the title being repeated in the narrative of the text multiple times. Once or twice is cool, but more than that and I start to feel like I'm being knocked over the head with it. Yes, I get it, the title is metaphorical. Now leave me alone so I can read my book.

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photo 2016-07-03 19:20
The Mystery of The Old Wicklow House by Miranda Beall

Cass and Brad are at it again. This time she persuades a reluctant Brad to solve the mystery of The Old Wicklow House, rumored to be haunted, during the Blizzard of 1966 in Southern Maryland. This time, she pulls from her arsenal as protection against restless spirits the powerful protection of crystals: moonstone, pyrite, Blue John, snakestone, carnelian, amethyst, and bloodstone to mention a few. But ultimately she convinces Brad to turn once again to the Ouija Board to sort out the mystery of The Old Wicklow House.

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