Perfume:The Story of a Murderer – Patrick Süskind

Book #243

Reviewer: Sweetp

2895

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a book I’ve had on my ‘to-read’ list for some time. I started reading it with some trepidation since horror isn’t my usual genre of choice, and I was under the impression this was a particularly gruesome book.

I was soon quite engrossed in this story about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who is born in the squalidness of pre-Revolution Paris (1730s) and who has no personal odour.  As he manages to survive a bleak and loveless childhood he discovers he has a ‘gift’ for smells – in that he can smell everything in the world in the most minute detail. The descriptions of Grenouille’s olfactory experiences are lush and you can almost smell them coming off the page – from the suffocating stench of overcrowded Paris with it’s oozing cemeteries, fish markets and tanneries and stinking river, to the sweet scent of all the individual flowers used to make a perfume.

Eventually Grenouille ends up working for a master perfumer, learning how to distill perfumes and extract scents. I found this part of the book quite fascinating (probably my science background coming to the fore) particularly the techniques used in an age without modern laboratory facilities. Pages are devoted to describing the extraction of scents and the manufacture of perfumed oils and other accessories, and I can only wonder at the amount of research that must have gone into this subject. Far from boring, the juxtaposition of the stench of the city with the descriptions of the aristocracy wearing these manufactured perfumes is cleverly done and makes for an interesting historical commentary.

Grenouille is an odd character, freakish in both physical appearance and in temperament. Aloof, disconnected from the world around him, and seemingly without any sense of social propriety or conscience he increasingly becomes obsessed with his gift and embarks on a journey to learn other techniques for extracting scents. He uses his new found skills to extract the scent of inanimate objects, creating art-like “masterpieces”.

He was enchanted by their meaningless perfection; and at no time in his life, either before or after, were there moments of such truly innocent happiness as in those days when he playfully and eagerly set about creating fragrant landscapes, still lifes, and studies of individual objects.

Soon his obsession reaches new heights, and eventually he begins to murder in order to possess the scent of beautiful young girls.

The murder aspect of the book begins at roughly the 75% mark. Perfume: the story of *murder* it really isn’t and my assumptions about gruesomeness or gore were totally unfounded. The book doesn’t dwell on the violence, but more on the increasingly bizarre behaviours of Grenouille and the obsessive nature of his quest to possess the scents and his ability to catalogue them inside himself. As titled, the novel is really the story of a *murderer* – Grenouille – and he is not an easy character to empathize with. While his originality and creativity are almost admirable, to be honest there’s not a lot to like here. The obsession that drives him is pretty creepy and the overall tone of the book smells like a sinister Gothic horror.

This isn’t a long book and I read it quite quickly. The magical realism themes occur near the end of the book and will be a disappointment for some readers. The end perhaps is not as strong as the rest of the book, but to my mind Grenouille’s final ‘decision’ seemed a fitting end to his story.

He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

Book #902

Today’s book has the privilege of being a first for this blog – two reviews at the same time!  Many thanks to Ange P and Sweetp for the dual review.

Reviewer: Ange P

Warning 1: probably not a very helpful review, for reasons I explain below
Warning 2: there is a spoiler in one paragraph, which I have labelled.
Plot
The Earnslaw family brings up a young foundling, Heathcliff.  The daughter of the house, Cathy, and Heathcliff form a romantic attachment/grand passion, however, gradually Heathcliff finds that he is badly treated by all around him and he gradually becomes surly and sullen to all but Cathy.  When he believes that Cathy fails to return his love he runs away.  Cathy marries a neighbour, Edward Linton.
Heathcliff returns and sets himself up as a man of substance in the neighbourhood.  He plays on Cathy’s love for him regardless of her marriage and contributes to her gradual decline, followed by her death, giving birth to Linton’s child.
Heathcliff ardently resents Linton and in an effort to hurt Linton, marries his little sister, Isabella Linton.  In time, it is Heathcliff’s intention to revenge himself on all who have harmed him by completely damaging and destroying the next generation so that they are beyond redemption or happiness.
 Wikipedia’s Wuthering Heights entry has a selection of reviews from the time the novel was published and these were quite fascinating for people who like this type of thing.
Negative comments
Full of people being nasty to each other (gets a bit depressing).
Lacks a gripping climax.
Occasionally, I found the narrative techniques confusing so I wasn’t sure who was saying what.  There is a lot of indirect narration where the housekeeper tells a 15 year old story to a convalescent patient.
Positive comments
Amazing love story – never seen its like in literature before (and I’ve seen a read a lot of romantic fiction).  I just love this monologue from Cathy:
‘It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know who I love him; and that, not because hi’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am.  Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.’
Well written with few plot holes.
Atmospheric.
In many cases Wuthering Heights relies on human foibles such as kindness, or sympathy or a desire for material gain for plot development and this is a strength.  The foibles of Heathcliff, though, are so awful and unyielding that he is inhuman.
Summary:
I can’t get a grip on it, and I suspect that this is my failure rather than Emily Bronte’s.  It was a good read and I wanted to know what happened with it.  But I’m not sure I fully understood it all. Hence the general nature of this review.
[SPOILER:  I am particularly confused about why Heathcliff had a sudden change of heart about his revenge in the final two or three chapters. Was it because he knew he was going to be with Cathy again soon and he couldn’t bring himself to destroy the happiness of a young couple when he knew he would be restored to his love soon?  It seems so out of character.]
I’d love to know what other 1001 book people think of this novel and any guidance to help me get a grip on it will be gratefully received!

Reviewer: Sweetp

I actually finished this book sometime ago but have found myself procrastinating on writing a review -it’s somewhat intimidating to be writing a review for such a well-known classic!

Even if you have never read Wuthering Heights, you may well still recognize the names Heathcliff and Cathy. This dark and angst-ridden gothic novel is one of the most famous of the Bronte sisters’ works, and is perhaps the one that divides readers the most. If you do a quick internet search of reviews, you’ll find most people either fall into the love it, or the loathe it, camp.

Synonymous with windswept moors, heartbreak and misery, Wuthering Heights is not a happy book. The love story is not a sweet or ardent chaperoned romance, but a stormy obsessive love that consumes the lives of all involved. Heathcliff is not a gracious romantic figure, but is brooding, often cruel and is driven to the edge of insanity by his love for Cathy. Cathy is selfish, has a wicked temper and is often just as unlikeable as Heathcliff, and yet, despite often reflecting on how totally despicable all the characters in this novel are, I couldn’t help being swept away on their passion.

Because Wuthering Heights is at the heart of it, a novel about passion. Even if you hate everyone involved, it is hard not to be moved by the powerful emotions that make the characters who they are. Take Cathy’s speech about her love for Heathcliff:

If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it…Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.

Quite a declaration! Heathcliff too is totally consumed by Cathy, and when she decides to marry someone else it sets in motion a series of events that will see characters dying of broken hearts, driven to madness and the engineering of a most dreadful revenge on the next generation. Hate is just as a powerful motivator as love.

Dark and melodramatic this book certainly is  – with liberal sprinklings of violence and narcissism too. If you appreciate a bleak and gothic atmosphere, and flawed characters then this could be the classic read for you.

While I gave it 4 out of 5 stars, I can see why some people find this book difficult. The storytelling device itself is a little odd – an elderly housekeeper, Nelly, is telling the story to a visiting Mr Lockwood. Written before the use of third person omnipresent narrators, the style is a little clunky and at times confusing, and removes the reader somewhat from the intimacy of the story. This will be a roadblock for some readers. Add to the confusion the fact that there are two Cathys, the Linton and Heathcliff names are used both as a first name and as a family name and the similarities of the names Hindley, Heathcliff and Hareton, and it is easy to see why at times it is hard to keep it all straight.

Those that cannot get past the violence and the selfish nature of most of the characters will also find this book infuriatingly bleak. Others, like myself, will read it again, purely to wallow in the misery and angst. Perhaps it is one of those classics you simply have to read for yourself and decide whether it’s love or loathe. Either way, there is no denying that Wuthering Heights is a true classic, rightfully earning it’s place on the 1001 books list.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow – Peter Hoeg

Book #157

Reviewer: SweetP (first published 5 August 2012)

 

Smilla Jaspersen thinks more highly of snow and ice than she does of love. When her six year old neighbour falls to his death she is convinced that his death was the result of foul play and not an accident as the police believe. As a Greenlander, Smilla has always felt at odds with her new home in Denmark, and she is lead back to the icy frontier of her roots as she begins to unravel the mystery surrounding the boy’s death.

This book is hard to categorise, and describe. At times it sweeps the reader away on achingly beautiful and poetic descriptions, there’s a real sense of atmosphere – ice becomes a character of its own, and the cold seeps out of the pages. And then in the turn of the page there is a clunkiness to the prose that grates and made me feel like something had been lost in translation. (The book was originally written in Danish).

Smilla is at turns, provocative, with an inner strength that is admirable as she hunts for the truth, and then at other times her motivations are a mystery, or she utters something that seems just plain… odd. She portrays a sense of aloofness, a disconnection with the world around her which at the beginning was interesting, but by the end I felt like her voice had been lost a little. The plot too, at this point seemed to ramp up to ‘the big reveal’ only for it to feel forced and the ending rushed and incomplete.  I also remember feeling this way about the film adaptation that I watched many years ago – there is very little I remember about the film actually (except that Gabriel Byrne starred) but I do recall a sense of disbelief that the ending ‘went there’.

That being said, the setting was incredibly fascinating. The ‘sense of snow’ was incredibly evocative and exotic. We, in New Zealand, have one word for snow – the Inuit people have so many – Smilla’s gift for the ice was probably the thing that held the book together for me. I didn’t know anything about Denmarks’s relationship with Greenland and the issues globalisation has caused there – so that too was something I enjoyed learning more about.

I have a suspicion that this book will linger in my mind for a long time, but I don’t think I will be rushing to reread. I gave it 3/5 stars.

The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells

Book # 790

Reviewer: Sweetp


When I was growing up I used to love listening to Jeff Wayne’s musical version of the War of the Worlds. In my mind, I can instantly recall the sound of Richard Burton’s deep voice narrating – “No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.” Some twenty years later, I watched the story immortalised on the big screen by Tom Cruise and Spielberg, but it was only recently that I actually read the novel.

H.G. Wells published this book in 1898, long before moon landings, satellites, and humans living aboard space stations. His alien invaders, complete with destruction rays and gruesome feeding machines, would be just as horrifying if this story was set a hundred years later, and in that aspect this novel has lost none of its appeal, or impact. As a window into the beginnings of the science-fiction genre there is possibly nothing better.

Where this novel really shines though, is in the exploration of human nature – how different people cope in the face of disaster, and the lengths they will go to, to survive. The idea of the hunter becoming the hunted will appeal to all those who enjoy post-apocalyptic reads or themes of oppression, colonization and war. The story is narrated by a man who is witnessing the invasion first hand – his intelligent but often panicked version of events, gives an authentic, urgent immediacy to the novel as the horrifying events unfold.

At times the language feels a little stilted in a quaint Victorian way, but the book is also very short, and nothing is dragged out longer than it needs to be. Even being intimately familiar with the plot, I still found this to be an enjoyable and quick read.

I rated this 4/5 stars, a classic that should be on everyone’s “I’ve read this” list.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Book # 33

Reviewer: Sweetp

I first heard about this book around the time it won a Pulitizer in 2003, and remember thinking I would like to read it. Skip forward some years and I stumbled across a copy at the library with some excitement. Now I should explain that “somehow’ I was under the misguided  assumption that this was some sort of sci-fi or futuristic novel where there is no longer male and female gender. I have absolutely no idea where I got this idea from, since the book is definitely not of that nature; though from reading other reviews of this novel, it appears others have assumed it was about seafaring or shipping (the cover picture) so at least I am not alone in my confusion.

From pretty much the first page I realized that this novel wasn’t going to be anything along the lines I had assumed but soon found myself swept away on the story of Desdemona and Lefty. Having already established there was an incestuous relationship, I was intrigued to know how this would be handled and I quite enjoyed the exploration of the struggles of the couple having escaped death in Greece and their hopes in starting a new life in America. It was about halfway that I began to get a bit twitchy. This is supposed to be a novel about Cal – the grandchild of Desdemona and Lefty – a hermaphrodite who is raised as a girl but later lives his life as a man. Cal is there in the background for the first half/two-thirds of the book as an ominpresent narrator who, I have to say, can be a little intrusive. I can forgive the “risky” narration (where Cal tells of events he wasn’t alive to see ) but found some of the third person/first person shifts a little choppy. FINALLY towards the end of the novel we see the events that lead to the discovery of Cal’s condition – the exploration of the teenage years was really well done – very real in the insecurities and fears of that age about growing up, sexuality, finding oneself. This is about when I began to really enjoy the book and finished it quickly after getting to this point.

In essence this is an epic novel.It spans almost a century and covers events in Greece and Turkey, the struggles of immigrant families in the US, the depression, the history of Detroit, black activism, the Vietnam War etc etc but what I guess my main gripe with the book is that while Desdemona’s life is catalogued pretty much from childhood through to old age, Cal’s life from 17 to 41 is entirely missing ! I want to know why he never sought out the Object again, how he came to terms with his new body, and of course WHY HE CHOSE TO LIVE AS A MAN. I really feel like this was a weak point of this book- up to the point where there is medical intervention Calliope is a girl, exploring her feelings for other girls, but with a body that is slowly altering to that of a male. Then she writes a note to her parents saying she wants to be a boy and runs away! I would have liked to have seen some more emotional connect – some sort of revelation for Cal that would explain everything he had been feeling confused about and the ‘answer’ presenting itself (not an epiphany per se but more than just a decision seemingly out of the blue). I also thought the ending was weak and wish there was more about Cal and Julie and how a couple might overcome the issues and have a functioning relationship.

I really struggled with some of the book and at times it felt a bit like a literary slog, however it has given me plenty to think about and though I wavered between 3 and 4 stars, I think there were moments of brilliance in the writing and some brave choices in subject and writing style so 4 stars it is.