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The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri: A Novel

by David Bajo

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1509132,064 (3.52)20
Metaphysical literary suspense from a compelling new voice in fiction For most of his adult life—through two marriages and countless travels—the mathematician Philip Mazyrk has carried on a love affair with Irma Arcuri. Now Irma has vanished and left Philip her entire library of 351 books, five of them written by Irma herself. Buried in the text of this library—Cervantes to Turgenyev, Borges to Fowles—lay the secrets of Irma’s disappearance and, in the novels Irma has written, the story of her elusive and romantic past with Philip. Philip, a math genius who sees equations in every facet of life, reads the novels and begins to sense a more profound and troubling design at work. A mysterious woman appears; his ex-wife reveals a terrible secret; his stepdaughter, Nicole, long troubled by the free-spirited nature of her parents’ lives, approaches a dangerous turn; and Nicole’s teenage brother has fled. As clues, warnings, and implications both inside and outside the library mount, Philip begins to realize that he too is trapped in a narrative. Who is Irma Arcuri? What is really buried in the library? And, most important, whose story is this? Like the work of Milan Kundera or John Fowles, Bajo’s novel is brazenly passionate, sexy, even transgressive, yet thrillingly mysterious. Addictive, compelling, and clever, The 351 Books of Irma Arcuriwill captivate fans of The Time Traveler’s Wifeand The Shadow of the Wind.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Bajo's novel is about mathematics, bookbinding, running, reading and lovemaking in a Borgesian, Cervantesian labryinth. It teases and intrigues, leading the reader on winding pathways of relationships with sensuous prose. Not for those who like their novels rational and straightfoward. I found it fascinating and seductive. ( )
1 vote janeajones | Mar 12, 2015 |
What we are to books, what books are to us—what they offer to us and what we take from them—is the theme that runs through David Bajo’s seductive and sometimes puzzling novel The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri. The 351 books of the title are hand-bound hardcovers that Irma, a writer and book conservationist, has bequeathed to her long-time friend and sometime lover, a mathematician named Philip Mazyrk. The first Philip hears about the inheritance is in an email from Irma’s mother. Irma, apparently, is gone.



Not dead. Just gone. Disappeared from life. “Can one do that? Leave her own life? How does one do that?” asks Philip’s most recent ex-wife, who knew and liked this woman who drifted in and out of Philip’s life like an errant comet on an unpredictable orbit. “She left me her books, B.” answers Philip. It’s as final a statement as either of them can imagine her making.

Naturally Philip resolves to find her.

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri is the kind of biblio-mystery that invites comparisons to Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, or Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas. Plot, however, takes second place to descriptive power and sheer, breathless exultation in the magic of literature. It is not a mystery to be solved so much as an extended rumination on what it means to become lost in a book, and as such contains layer after layer of allusion and illusion, plots and subplot, metaphors that turn on themselves to become metaphors for something else. Don Quixote’s quest being the most glaringly obvious case, but there are implications and intimations throughout the story.

Because of this literary indulgence, the novel lacks a certain cohesiveness and focus (one can’t help wondering, for example, why no one ever takes a more prosaic approach to finding Irma—this is the age of the Internet, after all. It isn’t all that easy to fall off the grid) and there are some weak spots, one suspects, especially with regards to Philip’s mathematical approach to his search. For example, Philip often describes (very poetically) the equations he writes to discover any number of mysterious things, from how to find Irma to what might be bothering his saddened stepdaughter. But a mathematician would tell you that these are expressions, not equations. Expressions describe. Equations solve.

These are minor complaints, however, in a book that is rich in beautiful detail—especially in setting and in describing books. There are gorgeously-rendered descriptions of Philadelphia, Corsica, Mexico, Barcelona, Seville. But it is the books that get the most attention. The process of restoring and binding a book falls naturally into many parts of the story until the reader, like Irma, like Philip, can almost feel the texture of different linens and leathers, the rough edges of old paper, parchment and vellum, and smell the acrid scent of ink, tannic acid, and the dust that seems inherent in every old volume.

“Most of us,” Irma once told Philip, “can’t accept being the protagonist of our own lives. Whether we only watch TV or sports or read thousands of books, we’re all just trying to find another protagonist for our lives. One besides ourselves.” Philip doesn’t watch television, and until he was sent Irma’s book collection, he didn’t read much—at least in the way of fiction. But as he makes his way towards his disappeared lover, guided by Borges and Cervantes, he discovers that he has become the protagonist—if not of his own life, then of hers. full review here
  southernbooklady | Apr 4, 2010 |
The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri is a rich and incredibly sensuous story about books, love, and the equations that make up our lives.

Philip Masryk is a brilliant mathematician/investment consultant who often finds himself scribbling mathematical formulas to represent the interactions and events around him. While he finds this to generally be a helpful way of viewing the world, people often become variables that are hard to predict. He's been married twice and has two ex-step-children, in whose lives he still plays a very minor role, but the only constant in his life has been his friend and lover, a book-binder named Irma Arcuri. The book opens as Philip is notified of her disappearance and the fact that she has bequeathed to him her collection of 351 books, all of which she had bound herself and a few of which she has written. No one seems to believe that Irma is actually dead, simply that she has chosen to disappear from her life and perhaps embark on some other adventure, but Philip wants to find her and believes that the secret to doing so lies within his newly inherited library.

Philip's search spans literature and continents, though many of his revelations are found within the people that make up Philip's life. The narrative goes back and forth in time, concerned not only with Philip and Irma's relationship but with Philip and Irma's individual relationships with others... such as Philip's two ex-wives, his best friend, Philip's two ex-step-children, and perhaps even a woman Philip meets in a bar after Irma has already disappeared. Philip, who has not read much of anything contained within Irma's library, selects which book to read next in a very calculated manner, believing that Irma has planned this.

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri is clearly an homage to literature and the role it plays in our lives. Bajo chooses a very intriguing mix of titles to highlight here (including Borges, Cervantes, Camus, Sebald, and others), and makes things all the more interesting when Philip realizes that in re-binding these books, Irma may have made adjustments to the text within, too. In addition to presenting something that treats books as precious touchstones in our lives, Bajo has also captured the sensual experience surrounding literature and the intimacy of sharing stories with another. This is a very sexual book and Bajo doesn't shy away from dealing with sex quite directly. I never found it to be too ridiculous, though... just quite prevalent. (It was so very sensual, in fact, that even though I usually pass books along to my mother, I told her that this was unsuitable for parents and if she wanted a copy, she'd have to go and get one herself. My significant other, however, has already been told to move this up to the top of his list.)

For a true book lover, it's hard to not find something deeply seductive about the allure of books. And when you add a beautiful and sexy woman into the mix... well... let's just say that I would have crumbled just as easily as any other of Irma's conquests. There are some truly beautiful passages and ideas being expressed... in addition to the steamy sex scenes mentioned above. There were a few flaws within the narrative and I'm not entirely sure that the ending left me satisfied, but as I believe this is Bajo's first novel, I consider myself quite impressed. Selections from Philip's reading have the habit of flowing into the text without too much notation, so the reader must keep on his or her toes to understand just which writer is responsible for what he/she is reading. There were moments when it came to Philip's relationship with his ex-step-children where I wasn't convinced of the storyline's necessity, or at least of its prominence, but nothing too severe. The only thing that truly irked me with this book was the fact that nearly all of the characters in the novel are runners... and Philip seems to run so often that I was convinced his heart would burst. Is it possible for someone to run that often every day and still stand? Let alone participate in all those sex scenes? Sure, he was raised by steeplechaser parents, but even so! I felt like quite a sedentary creature as Philip sprinted through towns in multiple countries, no matter his occasional complaints about getting older. It seemed excessive.

On the whole, I loved this novel -- when you find yourself as a reader being seduced by the main characters, it's hard not to connect with it. If you're looking for a luscious read and you're up to being challenged by a twisting and turning storyline, then I sincerely recommend a comfy chair beside a fire, a glass of wine, and this novel. You'll find it to be a pleasurable experience. ( )
  alana_leigh | Nov 5, 2009 |
Irma Arcuri desapareceu e ninguém sabe se ela está viva ou morta. Mas deixou sua biblioteca para um amigo, o estatístico Philip Masryk. Para descobrir o paradeiro de Irma, Philip começa a procurar pistas nos livros, tarefa nada fácil para quem está acostumado com a frieza dos números. As obras dos maiores clássicos da literatura universal não o fazem apenas mergulhar no até então desconhecido universo das letras, mas parecem ser também a chave para compreender a vida da enigmática Irma. Um romance sobre sexo, matemática, literatura e amor. Um livro para quem ama livros. ( )
  oleitorvoraz | Jul 14, 2009 |
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