Search This Blog

Loading...

Friday, 22 July 2016

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

There are two main reasons that I can think of why I picked up Perfume. Firstly, the idea of a man who kills in order to preserve the scent of a young virgin is kind of fascinating in a sickening way, and there is a part of me that does relish narratives like that every once in a while. Secondly, I have very little sense of smell myself and I was curious to see what a novel with smell as its primary sense would read like. I guess I wanted to see if it could be conveyed clearly even to someone with my dulled olfactory sense.


Perfume: The Story of a Murderer follows Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an intensely strange and disturbing man throughout his equally disturbing life. From the moment that he is abandoned by his mother to die beneath her fish stall, he is seen as different by those who meet him, though they couldn't necessarily be able to explain why. Whilst growing up, he realises that he has an unusually heightened sense of smell, and he develops a desire to become the world's greatest perfumer and to recreate the particularly exquisite scent of a young virgin girl. And he will do anything in order to possess that scent.
Perfume is an odd book to try and review, because while there is nothing that I can point to within the novel and say that this part is badly written or included unwisely, there is something about the work as a whole that left me a bit cold.
I suppose that I can start with what definitely did work, which was the writing itself. It is kind of unusual for me, most of the time I can point at characters, scenes or even themes that endeared me most to the book. But here, it was the style itself that really caught me. In some ways, it reminds me a little of The Child of Pleasure by Gabriele d'Annunzio, because the two have a similar way of enriching their comparatively simple narratives with grandiose sensory accompaniment. Where d'Annunzio focuses on visuals, Suskind brings this world to life through a cavalcade of different scents. I keep trying to think how to describe it and the word lush always seems to come to mind: rich and abundant, if not always (or indeed often) pleasant. It is an enthralling experience to imagine that crush of scents and definitely makes up for some of the lesser elements of the book.
I suppose that my main issue is with the main character, Grenouille. Don't misunderstand me, in his own way he is an interesting and well-written character. It was certainly refreshing to have a villain protagonist at least. I suppose my issue with him is that he is more or less a static character. While he creates conflict and has epiphanies about himself throughout the novel, I didn't feel that there was much real change in him at all. At various points in the narrative, he is compared to a tick, parasitic and infinitely patient. Neither of those key personality traits change at all, and considering that his is the perspective that the narrator sticks to for long chunks of the novel it does start to feel a little flat and one-note at times. It's not a huge issue, but I found it noticeable enough to bother me.

I found Perfume an odd book, but a mostly satisfying read. I would give it a shot simply for the lush sensory element of the writing style, although I did find myself a bit bothered by the static characterisation of the villain protagonist Grenouille. A book that I would recommend maybe reading once, but I can't see myself re-reading it any time soon. 3.5/5

Next review: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Ever since starting my blog, I had heard good things about Edith Wharton. She wasn't an author that I had heard of before then despite being what one could class as a "classic" writer. Considering that the praise for her writing was immense from the blogs that I followed, I thought that it might be an idea to try out one of her books that I had seen particularly touted, The House of Mirth.


The House of Mirth follows Miss Lily Bart, a beautiful young woman who seeks to climb the ladder of her social circle amongst New York's nouveaux riche. Brought up with a strict aversion to dinginess despite her family's comparatively modest means, she aims to marry a husband who can provide her both with luxury and endless admiration. She finds herself, however, meeting a succession of obstacles born out of missteps of conduct that would be harmless enough were her peers not morally bankrupt to one extent or another.
I already mentioned that I had heard good things about Edith Wharton's books, but damn could that lady ever write. It has been a long time since a book has been well-written enough that I have been so torn between putting it down because it's too tense, and continuing reading because I need to know what happens. Admittedly, I do have a weakness for books that fall into the comedy of manners, especially those that are particularly sharp and backstabbing, but there is something particularly engaging about The House of Mirth. I believe that the key to its success is the main character, Lily Bart. She is the feminine epitome of the classic tragic hero: have a particular flaw that causes her to make a mistake great enough that she suffers a great fall and enough pride that she cannot undo the mistake once she has made it. What makes Lily interesting is that her flaw is essentially that she has scruples. At the beginning of the novel, she knows that in order to attain the wealth that she wants, she needs to act in a certain way to attract a particular rich gentleman. But she fails at the last hurdle because she finds herself unable to tolerate the idea of the vapid life that she would lead as a result, always having to keep up these lies in the process. And this continues throughout the novel: she meets an obstacle or fixes on a goal, gets most of the way there through scheming and manipulation, but is brought up short by an abhorrence towards the very underhanded tactics that can only benefit her. It's a fascinating inner struggle to watch, but certainly not an easy one to stomach at times. Towards the end, it also becomes increasingly obvious what the end has to be, but it is no less enthralling because of that .

A fascinating look at one woman's struggles with the social mores of her peers, and her incompatible needs for integrity and wealth. Fantastically written and definitely one to pick up if you have the time. 5/5

Next review: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Signing off,
Nisa.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is one of those novelists that, as an avid reader, I have felt kind of compelled to try for several years now. This was only made worse by studying the film adaptation of her novel Orlando. I loved that film, and I felt kind of intrigued then about what kind of writer she would actually be. Because while I had obviously heard of her, I didn't really have much of an idea what sort of books she actually penned. Being somewhat stumped there, I decided that it might be better to start with one of her more famous novels, Mrs Dalloway, and see how I got on from there. 


Mrs Dalloway focuses on a single day in June in 1923, a day that Clarissa Dalloway spends preparing for a party that she and her politician husband will be hosting that evening. While the reader follows probably around 20 different characters during the course of the narrative, the main two characters are probably Clarissa and Septimus Warren Smith. The former spends her day preparing for her party whilst thinking back on her youth when she is reacquainted with the man that she almost married. Meanwhile, Septimus is accompanying his wife to the doctors, who she believes will help him recover from the shellshock that he has developed following the Great War. 
Having now read Mrs Dalloway, I find myself in a rather unusual position. I seem to have found a book that I would much rather study than read for pleasure. It is a position that I actually found myself in with Don Quixote back in university: while I hated that novel with an unrelenting passion, as my reviews on this blog will attest to, I found it incredibly easy to write about, and I don't think I would be far wrong in considering the essays created in analysis of it to be some of my finest critical work. I imagine that, had I been given Mrs Dalloway as a set text by one of my lecturers, I would have had a similar reaction. And I find that that bothers me. 
So, why would I want to re-read it for study? Well, first of all the writing is absolutely stunning, a stream-of-consciousness style that is both extremely fluid and yet also dense with description and observation. It is quite difficult to interpret at points, and I would imagine that it would benefit from reading it in long uninterrupted stretches. There's also a kind of equivalent density of ideas and connections by theme, that I could well see being fascinating to pull apart and compare in an academic setting. So definite plus points there. 
Emotionally though? For me it falls flat. A whole host of characters are followed and examined in great detail, but the fact that everything happens in one day means that for the majority of them, nothing really sticks. There are a couple of characters that end the day in monumentally different circumstances than those they started in, but even then that huge change feels very much like the logical chain of progression with regards to their personalities as they are presently. And it annoys me that this is the case, because the academic part of me wants to love Mrs Dalloway, while the reader in me is annoyed because in some ways it feels like a huge waste of time. 

I can only give Mrs Dalloway a mixed review in the end. While there is an analytical part of me that wants to go through the narrative with a fine tooth-comb to pick apart the language and the themes, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it because emotionally it left me absolutely dead. I'm sure that there are those who could read this and love it without a problem, but I was not one of them. Mrs Dalloway is a clever book certainly, but also in some ways a bit throwaway. 3/5 

Next review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton 

Signing off, 
Nisa. 

Friday, 8 July 2016

A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil

Continuing in my literary vein, I decided to pick up A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde. I am something of a fan of the original Robert Louis Stevenson story, and the theme of duality is always an interesting one to explore. Add in the promise of a bit of the supernatural and I was really looking forward to this.


Robert Lewis is a young actor currently rehearsing for the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde in a new production of the Stevenson play. When he is the victim of a bike accident one foggy morning in his home city of Edinburgh, he leaves the hospital and finds the world stranger and darker than he remembered it. He must try and resume his life as best he can when the world seems to be actively conspiring against him.
I hated this novel so damn much. There are two principle reasons for why A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde just does not work, and conveniently it works out as one reason for each part that the novel is split into.
So, the reason I didn't like Part 1? The main character Robert. He was a reasonably well fleshed-out character, but that didn't matter, because apparently all this guy could do was whine and gripe about how much better an actor he is than everybody else and why does nobody love him?! When your plot for the entirety of the first part is a complaining two-bit hack being repeatedly humiliated by similarly awful people and planning to get revenge on his not-quite-ex-girlfriend, it gets really pathetic really quickly. I had hoped for it to improve as he got more into the role of Jekyll and Hyde, but then Part 2 happened and it just plummeted even further in my estimation than I ever thought it could.
The reason I didn't like Part 2 is some major spoiler material, but at this point I doubt that I am selling this piece of trash to anyone, so here goes anyway. Part 2 is where you find out that it was all a dream. Honest to god, it turns out that the entirety of the previous part was a dream experienced while a writer was in a coma following a bike accident. I didn't think that a twist this hackneyed and cliched actually passed through publication houses. I don't think I've actually seen this twist played out since I was in pre-school, and that was only because people assume that children have ridiculously low standards. So not only have I suffered through Robert's bitching and snivelling in the first place, but it then turns out to be entirely pointless because he's not actually real. Great. I am still considering burning A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde, it pissed me off that much. You cannot pull bullshit like this and then parade it around like it's high art. No.

I am just so angry at this book for wasting my time. The first part is marred by a protagonist so up his own arse that he could probably count as a genuine ouroboros, and then the second part manages to make it even worse with a twist that is usually confined to the worst and most patronising of children's fiction. Don't bother with this at all. 1/5

Next review: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

The last volume of the Chronicles of Narnia. After so much time spent overlooking the series, I was finally about to the read the last installment. I had some pretty decent hopes considering that I had thoroughly enjoyed the last three books that I had read of it. And the idea that the plot would be sparked by a false Aslan was too intriguing to pass up.


In The Last Battle, Jill and Eustace find themselves summoned again to Narnia to assist King Tirian against a false Aslan who has sold the Talking Animals to the Calormenes as slaves and cut down the Dryad forests. Facing odds never before seen in Narnia's history, they must prepare themselves for a momentous battle in the darkest hour.
I wanted to like this so much, but The Last Battle just manages to fail in two ways that are massive dealbreakers for me.
First, I had kind of hoped that the racism thing might have been more or less contained within The Horse and His Boy, but oh boy was I wrong. Turns out that The Last Battle is the installment that decided that blackface was needed. When Tirian and the children decide to darken their skin to infiltrate the enemy forces at page 60, I knew with a sinking feeling that this would not be one of the Chronicles of Narnia that I would be able to recommend. Just everything involving the Calormenes felt so uncomfortable, because it's the whole "evil dark people" bullshit without any real examination. They embody the worst parts of both heathens and non-believers in one set of characters, and I would be hard-pressed to think of a depiction of PoC characters that is worse than this without being created by the KKK. When the dwarves start insulting them and calling them "Darkies", it was a startling reminder that this story is being told by someone who would be our equivalent of a bigoted older relative that you tolerate out of familial duty.
Second, there was the ending. The Last Battle has an ending that you know is meant to be the happiest of happy endings, but it just comes across as weird and wrong and utterly terrifying instead. So Narnia has its end of days after King Tirian makes a final doomed stand. While I will give kudos to Lewis for actually depicting Narnia's apocalypse, it feels really wrong to read about a world that you've spent seven books in just get washed away. Then they travel to Aslan's home, where they find that he has the best of all possible worlds all packed into one presumably non-euclidean space. And all but one of the children who had adventured in Narnia can now stay with Aslan forever because they died in a train accident. Yeah. Lewis just sort of jams that bombshell in on the last page, and the reaction is surprisingly calm. They all just sort of accept this right off the bat, none of them wondering how their surviving relatives are coping with this tragedy. I mean, they insult Susan to no end, but for her this is the day when all three of her siblings, both her parents, one of her cousins and the old man who looked after her during evacuation die in a tragic train accident. No-one asks after her. Apparently liking lipstick is enough to get you barred from heaven. And another thing. That's a great lesson to teach kids: no matter how good life gets, once you get a glimpse of God's graces you will never be truly satisfied until you're dead. If that doesn't creep you out, then you are obviously the audience that C. S. Lewis was aiming at.

A really disappointing end to the series. Unremittingly racist in tone and with a creepy bombshell ending, I can't really find anything to recommend here. End the series with The Silver Chair, it only goes downhill from there. 1/5

Next review: A Method Actor's Guide to Jekyll and Hyde by Kevin MacNeil

Signing off,
Nisa.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott

I picked up The Upright Piano Player at around the same time as Hotel du Lac, as I was evidently in a literary fiction kind of mood. This does contrast nicely with my last read though: older vs within the last decade, established writer vs debut writer, that kind of thing. And with a hint of a thriller about it, I had some moderately high hopes for this one.


In The Upright Piano Player, the reader follows Henry, a man well known for both his business sense and his strong set of principles. After he takes early retirement, however, he finds his well-ordered life beginning to fall apart around him. His ex-wife contacts him with news that she's terminally ill, his son reappears in his life after years of estrangement, and he finds himself the victim of sustained harassment starting with an assault on the eve of the new millennium. All of these stand to test the defences that he has built up over the course of his lifetime.
After all the cover quotes describing The Upright Piano Player as wise and moving and elegant, I was severely disappointed by the jumbled mess of a book that I actually got. I think that the main problem that this book has is a lack of focus, a flaw that mires the entirety of the book in self-congratulating meandering that believes itself to be deep words of wisdom. Mostly this can be seen in the two main plot strands that trouble Henry throughout: his turbulent history and reintegration with his estranged family, and the harassment that he suffers at the hands of a stranger. If this were a competent debut, the two plot threads would at some point become entwined with one another and feed into each other's tension. As it is, the two never meet in any meaningful way, often being split by a literal ocean. It feels very much like the author was torn between writing a thriller and writing the next great novel about the human condition. Apparently unable to pick between the two, he slaps both of them onto the page and cobbles together a semblance of a plot where both could maybe happen simultaneously.
Another example of this lack of focus is the glaring difference between the main body of the novel set in 1999-2000 as described above, and the brief section of Henry's life in 2004 that is narrated at the beginning. I am in two minds about this section. On the one hand, it is the only section that isn't desperately pedestrian in writing style, and it actually manages to convey a startling amount of emotion in a very short space. When I read that first part, with Henry attending the funeral of his own grandson whose death he feels more that partly responsible for, I was really excited for the rest of the story. On the other hand, it is completely and utterly pointless in regards to the actual story. It never comes up again. I don't know, maybe Abbott had to bump up the word count or something, but I cannot forgive the way that such a heartfelt piece of writing could just be stapled on at the beginning like that, with no intent to resolve anything brought up as a result of that funeral scene. I would have read the novel about a grandfather trying to deal with guilt and grief, that could have been interesting. As it was, it is an impressive opening to a damp squib of a book. Highly infuriating.
The last thing that bothers me is the weird way that the characters act sometimes, especially Henry's family. There are times during the novel where characters do things that seem to serve no other purpose than to cause Henry suffering, even if it was something that people generally wouldn't do in those circumstances. The most obvious example of this is the breakdown of Henry's marriage to his ex-wife Nessa, and the subsequent estrangement from the rest of his family. So, Henry's marriage ends when Nessa has an affair to make up for her husband's frequent absences at work; when it comes out publicly and her new squeeze leaves her in the lurch, Henry rejects her when she tries to come back to him. All well and good so far. It's tragic, but I can understand why he wouldn't want to be with someone who can so easily betray his trust. What I can't understand is his son's decision to side entirely with his mother to the point of cutting off all contact with Henry. Sure, the man is curmudgeonly and a workaholic, but this is not something that people decide to do lightly and it certainly isn't a cruel decision of his regardless of what the book would like us to think. As such, the son's decision is utterly mind-boggling, especially when you find out that Henry was a grandfather for 4 years without even knowing that his son had gotten married, let alone had children. That the son doesn't once consider whether that was a bad decision is kind of horrifying. That's a level of callousness that I would hope most people would never deliberately inflict on their family. The fact that Nessa appears to be characterised as only a step below the second coming of Christ only makes this whole family debacle all the more frustrating. Just because she's dying doesn't mean you can't depict her like the flighty bitch that she is.

This is a mess through and through. The lack of focus is the biggest flaw, with the narrative vacillating between a story about family ties and a thriller, with a partially written study on grief stuck to the beginning with apparently no thought of how it affects or interacts with the rest of the novel. Additionally, it would appear that some characters do things specifically so that the main character can suffer a bit more. And to add the cherry on top, the title of The Upright Piano Player doesn't have any significance whatsoever. It would have been more accurate if they'd titled it "Misery for Misery's Sake". 1.5/5

Next review: The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

Signing off,
Nisa.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

I vaguely remember picking up Hotel du Lac at a hospital bookshop, though I probably couldn't tell you why. I would imagine that I had heard good things about it from other bloggers that I followed at the time, which would probably go further in my mind than it winning the Booker Prize would. I suppose I wanted something a bit gentler after the cluster of awful that was Keeping It Real, and when one of the reviews calls it "a smashing love story" I had at least pleasant expectations. 


Hotel du Lac follows Edith Hope, a romance novelist who has been exiled by her friends after she commits a social scandal that has left all those involved humiliated. Retreating to the eponymous Hotel du Lac, she intends to take advantage of her arrival taking place out of season by powering through her current novel while she waits for things to die down at home. Without intending it, she is drawn into the personal dilemmas of the other out-of-season residents and finds herself re-examining who she is as a person. 
That quote I mentioned above about this being a smashing love story was from the Times. I am almost certain that whoever they got to review Hotel du Lac didn't actually read it, since this is most definitely not a love story. Unless it was a half-hearted attempt to try and define what it is genre-wise, since that is a bit of a tough question to answer. If I were to try and define it as anything, then I would call it a character study, although it is strangely static and timeless. I hear that there is a film adaptation by the BBC, but I honestly can't see that translating well to screen considering that almost all the actual development is in Edith's head. In terms of her behaviour towards her other guests, she is more or less treated like a sounding board throughout her stay as she plays the quiet and unassuming spinster. So to try and translate major alterations that play out in such an understated character must be difficult if not impossible. It felt weirdly like a long, protracted dissociative episode of Edith's, where everything feels both unreal enough that events must be happening to other people and yet grave enough that she must pay attention to see how it will affect her. I don't think I'm selling it particularly well, but I did quite enjoy it in a muted and kind of unsettled way. I think that if you have the patience to read it and mull over it a little, then you could get a lot out of it, if not necessarily in a way that you could describe with ease. 
I will just mention the gender politics, since that seems to come up as a negative point in some of the more recent reviews that I have found for Hotel du Lac. Edith comes out pretty quickly and says that she prefers the company of men to that of her own gender, which is why it frustrates her a little to find that most of her company both at home and at the hotel are female. And she slowly builds up a picture of her view of gender that is inherently combative: the interactions that one has with their own gender leads them to instinctively seek out company outside of that, and will generally lead to marriage. At one point she states that women bond over shared sadness, but will use happiness as a weapon against other women. I can definitely see why people find that an uncomfortable thing to read, especially given that it was written in the 80s and shouldn't we have known better by then. I would argue though that this is perhaps a little unfair. This is coming from a woman fast approaching her forties, constantly being told by her publishers that her protagonists need to be harder and edgier to better suit the ideal of the era, and constantly having to ward away attempts to set her up by her friends. She is being told on all sides that she does not fit the standards of an ideal woman and will therefore be doomed to loneliness. And given that our society is constructed in such a way that marriage is often perceived to be the ultimate goal for women, a stance propagated both by men and women, it must feel very much like she is under attack for the way that she lives. So while I don't entirely share her sentiments, I feel that it makes sense for her character and that she definitely has reason for thinking as she does. 

A languid novel that shows Edith's character changing in response to the weirdly static nature of her surroundings and the oddly flat characters that live within it. It is a curious read, like stepping into a dissociative bubble where places and events are both momentous and utterly inconsequential. If you have the patience to mull it over, I think you could gain a lot from reading Hotel du Lac. I know that some have issues with some of the gender politics stated by the main character, but while they are not something that I entirely agree with, I think that they make sense for an unmarried woman stuck in a marriage-obsessed world. 4.5/5 

Next review: The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott 

Signing off, 
Nisa.