Tuesday, June 28, 2011

# 34 - Perfume The Story of A Murderer by Patrick Suskind

I had been itching to read this book, thinking it was going to be sort of like a serial killer mystery. Well, it was not so.

Grenouille was born in the filthiest and smelliest place in France during the the something hundreds (18th century). He was not supposed to live, but he did. However, there was something peculiar about him. People were uncomfortable being around him.

Grenouille has two amazing things about him, his extra strong sense of smell and his own lack of scent. His strong sense of gave him an almost superpower in that he did not even need his eyes so see. He could determine different people and even things through his nose. HIs lack of sense, on the other hand, led to him being outcast by other people. People instinctively and subconsciously felt that something was "off" with him and as a result, nobody wanted to have anything to do with him. He did not feel any love or attachment to anybody, just an all consuming passion for different scents. He Grenouille was a sociopathic monster with one very strong obsession. This obsession would lead him to apprentice at one of the city's most famous perfumier, to be a hermit and keep himself away from people for years, and finally, to kill young women to distill their perfect, intoxicating scents.

The final act is weird and shocking and just perfect. Grenouille is a contemptible cold sociopath, a monster truly. Although he is all that, there are times that at best, you feel sorry for him, but definitely, you sort of understand his motivations. He is not motivated by any malice. It's just the way he is and his all consuming obsession. In fact, it is most probably his obsession and desire to be loved that leads him to his atrocious acts. The author writes very well descriptively. The sights and especially the scents are so so vividly described that you can actually smell it.

It was an enjoyable, thought provoking, original and weird book. I loved it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

# 33 Portrait In Sepia by Isabel Allende

I read so much Isabel Allende when I was younger, it's not even funny. I was drawn, I guess to her strong female characters who endured so much but still held strong and never lost their capacity to love. Her stories are long family sagas, with eccentric and truly memorable characters.

This book is no different. Narrated by Aurora del Valle, it tells not only of her life but that of her parents and her grandparents. The bastard daughter of the Matias de Santa Cruz y del Valle, she spent the first five years of her life with her maternal grandparents Eliza Sommers and Tao Chi'en, since her mother, the most beautiful girl in Dan Francisco died giving birth to her.

When she is 5 years old, Eliza hands her over to her paternal grandmother, Paulina del Valle, who takes her in an introduces her to a whole different life. They then transfer to Chile, where she grows up and matures.

The book tells Aurora's story with the backdrop of war (apparently, the Pacific War and the Chilean Civil War). I know nothing about those wars and very little about Chile, to be honest, and it was fun to learn a little bit about the country, which, like most Latin American countries, seems remarkably similar to my little Pacific archipelago.

I liked the books for its typical Allende-ness, the crazy and sometimes implausible characters, the rambling way a big story is told. Really, just like listening to old family stories. What I didn't like was the lead character. I mean, i didn't DISLIKE her, she just seemed a little bland and I don't know, boring for and Allende character. And not as strong as her other women. I just couldn't get into her.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

# 32 The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro's works are quietly tragic. Never Let Me Go and The Remains of The Day seem to be very different, one is almost sci-fi, set in the future or some alternate universe, while the other is set in early 1900 England. But both are quiet and quietly tragic, dealing with wasted lives.

The book follows a butler of the old order, Stevens, as he goes on a rare vacation, a six day drive to visit an old colleague, a housekeeper. On the trip, over, real time happenings only set the stage for reminisces by the old butler on his life if service to Lord Darlington, his time together with Ms. Kenton, the housekeeper, and of his father.

Stevens has served Lord Darlington his whole life, forsaking his own pleasure and indeed, his own life to serve the Lord he so admires. He aspires to acquire the quality which he believes makes a butler GREAT. That of dignity. It is heartbreaking to read that in his quest for that elusive quality, he forgoes love and even family. Oh he is a good person with feelings, but you would never know it from looking at him.

The book tells the story of a lost love, that betwee, Stevens and Ms. Kenton, one that was not even acknowledged. It tells the story of a man stubbornly holding on to ideals that are not applicable in the present world. Of a life spent in service to a man, who, perhaps did not deserve it. Did Stevens go through all that lengths to be prefession in order to avoid living? To avoid loving?

It is a sad story, but it also has hints of humor and a lot of warmth. Really, I just really felt for Stevens and his beloved dignity, and for Ms. Kenton and her lost love.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

#31 - The Only Girl in the Car by Kathy Dobie

Kathy Dobie was a major slut, or so they say. Oh don't get me wrong, she totally had all the hallmarks of slutty behaviour. Provocative clothing, random and frequent sex, no serious relationships. However, I hardly think a 14 year old can ever be truly called a slut. Or any girl or woman for that matter.

Kathy was born the eldest girl in a family of six kids. The family is pretty normal, in fact, just a little bit better than normal. All of the kids have their own chores to do, they go on family picnics and have lively dinner conversations. They are, as happy as a family can be. And Kathy is a good girl. Until she turns 14, and realizes the power her nubile body has over dirty old men (and teenagers).

After a few trysts with older men (and losing her virginity to a 30 something loser), Kathy finds what she thought she needed by hanging out at the local youth center, where a lot of the rougher boys (and girls) hung out. However, she was never a part of the crowd of girls. It was always about her and "her" boys. She thinks she is happy, and thinks she has the genuine affection of the boys that she does stuff with, but an incident with boyS, in a car, opens her eyes and also turns her into an outcast and labelled a slut.

I live in a very Catholic and conservative country. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, my country is the only state outside the Vatican that does not allow divorce. Anyway, point is, I was never a good girl. In fact, I might have been relatively "slutty" in my teens, but I cannot imagine engaging in the level of promiscuous behavior and risk taking that Kathy did. It pains me and worries me that kids are being so unsafe. The author looks into a few things which might have led to her behaviour, but doesn't really dwell on it. She just tells us what she did, how she felt, and how it affected her.

After the incident in the car, she turns her life around in the totally opposite direction, being a sexless, humorless, Ayn Rand fanatic. She never really recovers and becomes herself until she goes off to college and leaves her life behind.

I really liked this coming of age memoir. Her early childhood memories are very warm, especially the part about loving her baby brother so much, and finally having somebody that she could hug and kiss and touch and love so completely. The later parts were heartbreaking, reading about a young girl being sexualized far before she is ready. And how badly some people treated her because she was seen as loose.

What I also could not believe was that, really? Old guys go out of their way to bed a kid who is so obviously a kid? Man, there are a lot of sorta-pedophiles over there.

# 30 The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

I really really liked Chevalier's two other book that I've read, The Girl With the Pearl Earring and Fallen Angels, especially Girl..., although it is a bit too girly for me sometimes. But this one, I found a big fat meh. After I read the book, I found out that this was actually her first book, and I though it made a lot of sense. It had the same pseudo-historical bit as Girl.., and the same sense of alienation of the lead characters, just not as accomplished, with annoying characters and some unbelievable and lazy shit.

The book is divided into alternate chapters, one told in the first person by an American who recently moved to a small French village, and the other, told in the third person about a young woman in 16th century France, living through the rise of the Huguenots and the subsequent persecution thereof. Their story is connected in that the American, Ella Turner, is the descendant of the young Huguenot, Isabelle Turnier.

Isabelle is called La Resseau, after the Virgin Mary that the once Catholics in their village adored, because of her red hair, which the Virgin is said to have. Once the Truth, or Calvinism enters that village, they destroy the Virgin and all remnants of Catholicism and the persecution of Isabelle starts. the book tells the story of her unhappy marriage to Etienne Turnier, and their escape to Switzerland during the Huguenot persecution.

Ella's story on the other hand, tells of her isolation in France, and her quest to know her family's history, as well as her falling out with her American husband and burgeoning love affair with a French librarian.

There is, of course, a surprise discovery, and a dark family secret uncovered at the end. I guess the themes are alienation and how to overcome it. Meh. There are some pseudo-supernatural elements that I found misplaced and off-putting.

In short, no, I really wasn't that impressed with the book. It was a fast read, but I was bored. I found myself really disliking the character of Ella. In our local parlance, she is very OA (overacting). I know that that term is in English but it has a different connotation when used here where I'm at.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

# 29 The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I have put off reading this book for years and years for the same reason that it took me a long time to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. The opening chapter had a lot of foliage, and for some reason, it put me off these books. And also quite like 100 years, I was bitterly regretting putting of reading this book for so long.

The Poisonwood Bible tells the tale of four sisters and their mother, brought to remote Africa (the Belgian Congo, specifically a small village near the Kwilu River [thanks wiki]) by an authoritarian, righteous and controlling minister of a father. The father goes there to collect souls for the Lord. His wife and daughters go along for lack of any other alternatives.

The book is narrated by the wife, Orleanna and their four daughters, haughty, worldly Rachel; eager to please (her father) tomboy Leah; gifted, silent and handicapped Ada; and the spunky baby Ruth May.

Their father's stubbornness and disregard for any opinions other than his own keeps the family in the Congo even after their Church's withdrawal of support and the political upheavals during that period. Despite the danger and imminent starvation, the family soldiers on, all of the girls growing and developing, while the father clings to his beliefs, never bending, or trying to understand the culture of the people he seeks to convert.

I related most to the earnest and probably idealistic Leah. Throughout the story, she grows the most, from blindly idolizing her father, to realizing his faults and standing up for what she believes. Ada, although I feel like I should like her for she is the most intelligent and aware, I cannot relate to. I don't like her constantly thinking that her sisters are dumber than her (although it probably is true).

In any case, the book is heartbreaking. Needless to say, their father's choice of keeping them in Africa leads to great tragedy for the family, and shapes their characters and lives. It is obvious that Kingsolver is passionate about the issue of the abuse if Africa by its conquerors, of the disturbance of their natural order. The book can be seen as a story of a family, but it also provides and insight on the history of the Belgian Congo in that period of time, and its effect on the ordinary people living there.