Perfume: The Story of a Murderer isn't the sort of book that will be everyone's cup of tea. What book is? But this book is likely to polarize its read...morePerfume: The Story of a Murderer isn't the sort of book that will be everyone's cup of tea. What book is? But this book is likely to polarize its readership into the "loved it completely" camp and the "ugh...no thanks" group. I fall firmly into the former, as I found the story wonderful in so many ways.
I read a lot of unconventional fiction, including a lot of things that some folks might find disturbing or overly bizarre. I love it when an author surprises me, and it doesn't happen nearly often enough. Perfume was surprising, but not so much for the plot or characterization as for the language. The language of Perfume is unabashedly sensual. There isn't a single sexual situation in the book (barring one very strange event near the end which is not described in any sort of explicit detail but is only suggested), but nearly every line is verily dripping with descriptors, with wording so florid and visceral you can almost (pardon the wordplay) smell it. Clearly this is intentional, and Süskind has really done a bang-up job.
The story, at its heart, is something of a cross between a murder mystery (mainly from the perspective of the murderer, but with details coming in from outside his experience, as well, to fill in the gaps and bring the story to life) and a coming of age story, in that we follow Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from birth through formation to fruition. The sensuality comes through in the language used to convey two realities: (1) the intricacies and arcana of the perfumer's trade and (2) the strange yet rich and vast inner world of Grenouille, which is almost entirely built of scent - experiences of scent, memories of scent, fantasies of scent, dreams of scent...an olfactory landscape foreign to most humans, yet so completely familiar and intimate to Grenouille, a master alchemist truly in his element. It is also an unusual character study and something of a satire on several aspects of society.
With the caveat of stating that I am neither monstrous nor murderous, I can say that on some levels I relate to Grenouille. I have always related very strongly to scent, and I've always been a bit unusual in my ways of relating to the world. As such, it is hard not to like this fellow. But tragically, he knows nothing of conscience, little of human feeling, and there is something of the animal about him. He is ruled by his whims and compulsions, even as he is patient and resilient and devoted to his aims. He is not a good person...but neither is he a bad person, although he does some very bad things. He is a tragic figure for whom conventional societal mores simply have little application, other than as camouflage. He is horrifying. He is exemplary. He is shocking, and he is sad. There is something of the "noble savage" about him, as well. I envied his detachment from all that we define as "necessary" in life, even as I was miserable for his plight and disgusted by his actions.
The author has a near-magical ability to translate sensory data into written word. He also has a subtle sense of humor and a sly knack for satire. Although I did enjoy the movie adaptation, I feel it is these authorial strengths that the film was not able to fully convey, and thus the book is superior. Furthermore, the movie was less adept at illustrating Grenouille's inner world. (Although the film is still very good.)
I would highly recommend Perfume to anyone who loves language, as well as to those who enjoy mystery or crime fiction, subtle horror, mature fantasy (as the story does venture to the fantastical, especially in the end), or the esoteric jargon of specialty fields (such as wine connoisseurs and the like)...assuming one is not easily unsettled, as there are certainly parts some might consider "over-the-top". I consider this book a classic of modern literature and will surely read it again.(less)
I am a sucker for well-rendered retellings of classic myths, especially of the Greco-Roman or Egyptian variety. The Penelopiad hit the spot like a war...moreI am a sucker for well-rendered retellings of classic myths, especially of the Greco-Roman or Egyptian variety. The Penelopiad hit the spot like a warm cup of tea. It told the story from Penelope's (Oddysseus' long-suffering and clever wife) point of view, including chimings-in from a chorus of her maids and peppered with poetic asides from the fields of the afterlife. This short book was big on story and packed with archetypal goodness, and I felt the narrative dealt fairly with Penelope and gave her a believable voice. I must admit I was a bit cruelly pleased to see Helen taken down a peg or three. She's always seemed the sort of gal who serves only to please a certain aspect of male imagination and to give womankind a bad name. Hussy. Of course, I'm sure one could view her own story through another lens and see it quite differently, as well. (Ah, now I need to research into stories retelling yet another myth...)
I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the alt-Victorian/Steampunk world of Gail Carriger's Soulless. I awarded the book 4 stars, but that rating reflects a...moreI thoroughly enjoyed my time in the alt-Victorian/Steampunk world of Gail Carriger's Soulless. I awarded the book 4 stars, but that rating reflects a bit of confliction on my part. I loved most aspects of the story, with a few personal reservations. In the spirit of keeping my review largely free of spoilers, I will not be discussing details of the plot, but will focus mostly on general aspects of the book.
If I could, I would give 5 stars specifically for the Victoriana - the language, atmosphere, social customs, fashion, food, etc. All were skillfully drawn, highlighting the author's knowledge and understanding of the era, as well as her facility with pulling the reader in and making the world come alive. I was an avid reader of Victorian- and Regency-set books when I was a teenager, some 20-odd years ago, but until the literary engines of Steampunk fairly recently began birthing intriguing, atypical neo-Victoriana with roots in the traditions of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and friends, I had found myself largely disinterested in the time period - at least as it is generally presented in prose. But as I have found my interest piqued by the proliferation of niftiness afforded by the Steampunk genre, I've become quite fussy about authors getting the ambiance right. Gail Carriger has both the setting and the details down pat, which allowed me to relax my inner editor and let her story sweep me along.
Other aspects of the book were similarly sterling. I would again grant 5 stars to Gail Carriger's "voice", as I adored both the characterization of Miss Alexia Tarabotti and the style of the author's humor. Miss Tarabotti is a cracking good protagonist, whip-smart, snarky, stubborn, unconventional, independant...all the while maintaining propriety and grace. (Well...usually. But her little "lapses" are part of her charm.) I could well relate to Alexia, as we both do not suffer fools gladly, and we share a feeling of alienation from the shallowness of mainstream society. There are sorely few sensible, level-headed, grumpy, yet still passionate and vibrant, heroines out there. I adored this feisty curmudgeon through-and-through. Huzzah! for firey-brained spinsters! (Other characters were also well-sketched, my personal favorites being the outrageous and surprisingly-likeable Lord Akeldama, and the long-suffering, competent Professor Lyall.)
I would likewise give 5 stars to the additions of science (and scientific speculation) peppered around the book. The author's real-life scientific background is displayed to good effect here, although it is never used heavy-handedly. (According to an interview on Tor.com, in her other-than-literary life, Ms. Carriger is an archeologist with a Masters of Science in "analysis of inorganic artifacts" - glass, metal, ceramics, etc. - a fact I found most happily unexpected and refreshing.) I fully relished this addition to the stew of daily decorum and supernatural goings-on (which is where the "alt-" in alt-Victoriana comes in, of course). It added a nice counterbalance to the descriptions of finery and social ritual, as well as to the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy a tale ripe with vampires, werewolves, and their ilk.
I mentioned above that I was a bit conflicted about Soulless, and as positive as my review has been to this point, one might wonder what is left for me to less than love. My internal division comes due to the several scenes of a sexual nature. Please don't mistake my comments for prudishness! I enjoy quite a lot of risqué writing - much of it of a level that disconcerts many so-called libertines I've known. I am extraordinarily open-minded on such matters. But these scenes, while well-crafted, often very funny, and certainly titilating, felt a bit out-of-place to me in the narrative. I realize this is fantasy, not historically-accurate fiction. I realize that expectations of some strict code of Victorian authenticity should be checked the moment one signs on to read a story involving supernaturals, preternaturals, alternate history, and the tongue-in-cheek. I appreciate all of that; truly I do. But I kept finding myself pulled out of the story by these scenes. I found them jarring, almost as if someone had slipped pages from a second novel into the book I was reading. This is not so much a critique on the author or the story she relates as it is a reflection on my subjective experience of reading said story. My reservations are reactive not to content or execution, but to context. In context, these scenes felt over-the-top to me. Several times, I found myself thinking along the lines of, "Hold up there a minute, madam! What sort of tomfoolery is this? I'm having an episode of literary cognitive dissonance! You're getting peanut butter in my chocolate! These two clearly share a conflagration of chemistry, but methinks this is a bit over-the-line for the time period...and in the middle of the street, no less! And don't get me started on the ill-advisory of dry-humping on the floor of a jail cell the gentleman who just a moment ago tried to eviscerate you and could at any moment feasibly feel the burning need to try again." Harumph.
Please don't allow my indignation regarding the more physical aspects of the love story within the larger story lead you to believe I didn't enjoy the book! (In fact, the quirky nature of the courtship therein was quite charming, indeed. I simply felt nettled - in light of so many other details of the time period being spot-on - by the seeming incongruity of all that heaving and nethers-grasping. I enjoyed Soulless as a whole very much, and I fully intend to read the sequel, as well as the third book in the trilogy upon its release. I will simply have to loosen my anti-chicklit valve a smidge on this one aspect of the books and focus on relishing the other nine-tenths of the story.
This book is short on pages but feels much fuller due to the author's command of language. This is not an easy read. It is not as difficult stylistically to slog through as the source material (Beowulf), but the wordage is quite florid, often astonishing for its deft use of metaphor, as well as filled with unusual word choice and unconventional phrasing. It is also frequently and surprisingly crude and nasty - not in a sexual way but in an earthy or bloody way. The ugliness of certain images is enhanced a hundred-fold by the simply beautiful language surrounding them.
This is largely a character study, as well as an existentialist tale, concerning Grendel's questions and angst and ramblings and rumblings, with musings on Being and the Self and the Other. Grendel is deeply unlikable, but you root for the bloody, smelly lout all the same, because he is somehow noble in his great savagery. (As eloquent as he is gross and horrible, he is not completely dissimilar to an unwashed Hannibal Lector in a fur coat, although less of a manipulator and more of a head-smasher.) He may eat men alive, but then he navel-gazes and philosophizes on not only why he did eat, but also on why the men existed in the first place. (He holds a very low opinion of humans in general, and "hates" everything/everyone from animals to trees to the sky. He is a bit of a nihilist.)
Grendel is involved in a 12-year war with the local humans, who fear and loathe him on principle, and is deeply devoted to, although he does not fully understand, his mute, incurious Mother. He is curious, quizzical, wry, furious, licentious, bitter, pitiful, jealous, greedy, childish, gluttonous, vulgar, brutish, violent, callous, and loud. Yet he is also true to himself, honest about himself, and often sees through to the heart of things in ways more sophisticated beings might not. He is at the same time the most inhuman and human being of all - the Beast inside us all.(less)