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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.



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 2016-02-16 08:00
Experimental Film
Experimental Film - Gemma Files

Are you familiar with obscure experimental Canadian film? Yeah, me neither.


I really hate to say this, but the story just couldn't keep my interest. At first their is a lot about Canadian film, which probably is interesting if a) you know something about it and b) it doesn't turn out to be completely fictional. The second part is a ghost story, based on an old European myth, which was more interesting but I felt it was still lacking something.


The writing is confusing, on purpose, at times, but I probably wouldn't have minded if I were more invested in the story. It's really a shame. I chose this book, even though it seemed quite out of my comfort zone, because Chi in the past has surprised me with some really good books. However, this particular one didn't work for me, although I'm quite sure there will be fans.


Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

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review 2015-02-27 01:25
Highly Technical; Read Very Slowly
Designing Experimental Research in Archaeology: Examining Technology through Production and Use - Jeffrey R. Ferguson

This is a highly technical book, and as such it demands your full and undivided attention to better understand it.


Overall, it's a highly informative set of academic papers. As a result, many of the papers are quite dense.


I would recommend this to anyone who wants to know more about the nitty gritty of archaeology, but a background in some science would be most helpful.

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review 2014-05-20 12:49
Experimental Landscapes in Watercolour by Ann Blockley
Experimental Landscapes in Watercolour - Ann Blockley

bookshelves: spring-2014, how-to, art-forms, published-2014, net-galley, nonfiction, e-book

Recommended for: Gerry, Derrolyn
Read from May 19 to 20, 2014


Description: Artist Ann Blockley is renowned for her innovative approach to traditional subjects. Following the huge success of her previous book, Experimental Flowers in Watercolour, she now explores ways to interpret landscape. Packed with stunning examples of her colourful, expressive work, this book encourages you to experiment with the same techniques in your own watercolour painting to develop a personal style.

Techniques covered include combining water-based paint and ink with other media such as gesso and collage to create dramatic effects; manipulating paint with materials such as plastic wrap (clingfilm); tearing, layering and reassembling paintings into watercolour collages; and developing textures and marks made using fabrics and other found objects. Throughout the book Ann offers her personal commentary on how her paintings were created, giving us a unique insight into the mind of the artist.

Both practical and inspirational, this glorious book is the ideal companion for watercolour painters who want to take their work a step further.

Interesting, exquisite to look at, and makes one want to break out the easel and brushes. The thought that took hold through these all too few pages was: 'You created that with that?

Asking which is the best of this collection is like asking to pick a favourite book, it can't be done, however I do tend towards Rocky Beach on page 31

Author Information
Ann Blockley is a well-known watercolourist with an international reputation. She is author of seven bestselling practical art books, including Experimental Flowers in Watercolour, also published by Batsford. Ann runs her own very popular watercolour courses, has made three DVDs of her painting techniques and regularly writes for The Artist magazine. She lives in Gloucestershire.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-05-14 13:31
A Unique Experience
S. - Doug Dorst,J.J. Abrams

Through sheer tenacity, I finished this "book" (I am not mocking it by putting it in quotations like this, as you are about to see, this is less of a traditional book and more of an experience in eavesdropping) and, five months later, I can safely say that I "finished" the material in the book, but I still think that, even being the smart girl that I am, a lot of it went right over my head.


Spoiler-free Portion


"Follow the monkey."

You want the quick n' dirty?  Very well; have you ever tried House of Leaves?   I ask only because, frankly, if you haven't tried THAT, then this one is going to be a question mark for whether you'll enjoy this concept or not.  That is not to say that if you haven't read HoL, that you are clearly a moron/ect./ect - really, this is, as I have heard people describe it to me, like the tv show Lost smashed together with HoL.  Mind you, I never watched so much as an episode of Lost, because by the time it was first airing, I was at school in the middle of nowhere, more concerned with establishing alliances with strangers and learning my place in the world than watching television (well, mostly).   I would say to put off buying this book if you feel even a smidge of trepidation towards its concept (I will get to that momentarily) and you would just prefer a straight-forward reading experience - this book might be something like what one of the citizens of Wonderland might create, if tasked to make a "book" - more of a experiment in the art, totally unique and created to envoke this feeling of voyeur-ism.  It kind of feels a bit like a parody of the whole concept of literature, especially the concept of literary critique, but on a far less level that HoL.  This time around, the criticism takes a back seat to a gushing, loudly professed love of mystery and hidden messages.


When you look up S., what you may be surprised to find that there are entire websites dedicated to interpreting how best to read the material in order.  If you think you're ready for that level of sheer commitment and borderline O.C.D insanity, then, again, I recommend HoL FIRST, because this is the sort of book that is difficult to do anything with, after you read it.  Mysterious!


For one thing, this is a book that it seems to be was created with the express purpose to be impossible to read on an e-reading device - you will need to buy the physical book, even though I have heard of ebooks of the book, it just cannot work in that manner.  I have heard that Dorst and Abrams wanted to create something, with this book, that is akin to a wistful love letter to physical books.


Saying that, as much as I howled about HoL back in the day, the experience of S. makes Johnny Truant's journey into the heart of darkness with his discovery of a manuscript which prefaces his slide into obsession look like Goodnight, Moon.


Here's a selection of pictures to illustrate just what the hell I am talking about:


This is all material that is in the book.  No, I do not mean reproductions of things discussed in-text - if you rifle through this book, this shit may fall out of you are not careful with handling the damned thing!


Note: The codewheel (!) and the "hand-written" notations in-book.   That is not just the one page in the book where you can read these notations, written by what are other characters who have read this copy of the book before you - they FILL the book en masse.




Now that I have explained the... eccentricities of the book at length, it may be a good idea to talk about the actual STORY, at this point.


So, what is S., exactly?   To be precise, S. is a book that is a copy of a fictional book, called Ship of Theseus that was from the 50's, taken from out of a high school library a good time ago.   During this time that a character has kept this book, he/she has been adding notes to it.


One day, this character leaves this book in the library, where it is found by a library worker, who begins to leave notes in it and proceeds to read the book.  They leave the book for each other to leave notes in (basically having full conversations via the white space in the book, sometimes spilling over the original text in it) and thus it is through the medium of a stolen book that these characters grow to know each other and talk about themselves at length.


The story of Ship of Theseus is an odd one - for one thing, to the two "readers", the mystery of just WHO the author of the book itself is ("V.M Straka") has never been properly solved.  A prolific writer of several other texts that the "readers" will talk about often at length, Straka was believed to have died prior to the release of this book. 


For someone reading the book, another interesting that is obvious is the fact that the text itself is often unclear and comes off as being heavily metaphorical.  The "readers" talk at length about how certain parts of the book are likely only really clear to people who have read Straka's other books, but even then, the book seems "cloudy", imprecise and hinting at something that we are just not privy to.


Adding to the mysterious nature of the book itself is the fact that the editor/translator of the book was notorious, in this book, for his/her usually nonsensical introduction to the book and all of the end notes in the book itself.  Seemingly useless, bordering on inane most of the time, it would seem to an initial reader that "F.X.C" was a loon - to a person who knew that "F.X.C" is yet another person who's true identity has never been discovered and that there has to be a reason for the nature of F.X.C's legendarily pointless notations, there is something else entirely happening in F.X.C's editing and notations.





I was quite surprised, when I looked up Ship of Theseus what I found - the title of the book itself is a reference to a "thought-experiment" regarding the nature of identity! Now, this book may be exceedingly long in the tooth, but when it uses the same device as John Dies @ the Endthen how much CAN I dislike the story? (Although, I must say, I really prefer the set-up and reveal of this concept in JD@tE a good deal more)


So what we should keep in mind, first and foremost, is the idea of identity and what it really means.  That in itself is the main driving force of the whole collection of material in the book - both the main narrative of the story that Jen and Eric bond over and talk about at length.  Hell, as we get to the letters in the book that constitute Jen and Eric's real "stories" that they had both previously lied about at some point, we can even see how both characters managed to construct their own versions of the other person based on both a series of lies as well as presumptions made about the other person - and the fallout from what all of those mistaken ideas of who the other person is brings about.


I was a little let down with the code wheel in the back of the book - I never saw an instance to use it!   To be fair, I am a dummy with codes and the like, so maybe it was just me. 


Then again, it may also be due to the fact that the book in itself is a work of mental overload; so much to read, so much to take in - just what IS important and what is unimportant?  Also, I have come to the conclusion that this book is as much as Mirror or Erised as it is a Ship of Theseus - whatever the reader is paying the closest amount of attention to, what matters to the reader in the book, is what they come out really focusing on, amidst the sea of information overload.


To that end, I am out of the book, disappointed by the fact that I must have missed about ten different things - what IS the S.?  Is there anything hidden I missed about Jen and Eric?  What happened with Filomela?  What is with the monkeys?  Who is Straka?  What is up with all of the obsidian and other missing artifacts?  What was up with the group financing Eric for no reason?    Is Jen right in her fear of men following her?  Who set Jen's parents' barn on fire - and left an S in the remnants?  What is the importance of the symbol S?  And, finally, where in the shit am I supposed to use the bloody code wheel?


Sometimes, I would go as far as to say that this book is far to clever for itself by a large means  "What are you talking about here?"  "Oh, you can't tell? How about you try and guess?  Maybe you just missed a clue imbedded in all of that cursive that you can barely read."  "You know what, S., you can shove your cursive and your smug clues right up your shitter."


You know what, else?  I unjokingly refer to all of the time I spend reading this "book" as time I could have spent reading at LEAST five "sane" books, from December to two days ago, time that I could have spent reading a massive amount of material, if I had really put my back into it.   Give me back that time, you ass.

(spoiler show)



Do I regret reading this, though?  Well, no; it's really the most unique book that I've seen since, again, House of Leaves, but if you press me, I would have to say that I prefer HoL to this.  I think a lot of it can be attributes to the fact that I can generally follow what is happening in HoL; with S., it seems to me that you have to put a lot into this damned narrative to get out most of your questions.


There's a part of me that is twee about that aspect of this story - oh, how unique, how creative! - but then I realize that this is the gluttonous type of book that, like the needy bitch that it is, wants to me dedicate more time to it to really "understand" it.  Really, S., this is simply unbecoming of you; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was never this clingy, and I got to find out what was going on with all of that mysterious "heir of Slytherin" stuff while also going on a magical, pre-teen adventure full of rooster strangling and a beating-the-shit-out-of-you tree.  Do you have a tree that can toss you like a football if a person were to try to go all lumberjack on its ass?


All kidding aside - yeah, on some level, I left unimpressed with the whole concept, but I also cannot shake off how much I admire the sheer ambition behind the art piece known as S.  And that happens to be exactly what S. seems, to me, to be, at the end of the day - less of a book and more of an ambitious art piece/sheerly experimental piece regarding the nature of the physical book.

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