“Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions or will. The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”
If ever there was someone you WOULD NOT want as a housemate, it’s the main protagonist of this novel: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He’d be the slinky anti-social type, who kept himself to himself and listened to a lot of Coldplay. There would be many an awkward meeting in the corridors, because he’d somehow find eye contact uncomfortable. You wouldn’t leave him alone with the house hamster. He’d keep dishes in his room for no apparent reason, and he wouldn’t take the bins out. But then those are the sorts of nightmarish qualities you might expect from a slightly weird serial killer.
The whole novel has quite an odd feel to it, like you’re constantly in the presence of said weird housemate character. Grenouille is abandoned by his mother at birth, discarded on the floor of a fish market. The mother is consequently put to death for her crime (death being a fate reserved for all of the characters who attempt to abandon Grenouille). As he grows up, Grenouille discovers that he has an incredible sense of smell. But upon discovering that he himself has no scent, he sets out on a devastating mission to possess the most beautiful scent in the world.
At the centre of the whole story is a quest, as the protagonist attempts to piece himself into a being. Even more interesting are the peculiar characters he meets along the way. Then of course there is that bit of strange magic at play, with Grenouille’s super-human sense of smell, that serves to compound the sense of foreboding and intrigue throughout. An absolutely cracking read.
The horror films that really creep me out are usually the ones that feature cute little kids with throaty adult voices. A malevolent devil masquerading as a pig-tailed bumpkin with rosy cheeks. But those sorts of characters are firmly rooted in the make believe. The character we encounter in this novel, as disturbing as it is, could very well appear on the front page tomorrow. And it’s as shocking as it is mesmerising.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is a story about a teenage boy responsible for a high school massacre, which although is fictitious in this instance, isn’t a far cry from the Columbine or Connecticut tragedies. The chilling tale is told by the boy’s mother, Eva, through a series of letters written to her estranged husband and Kevin’s father. As she searches for answers regarding what exactly would drive her son to mass murder, we get the sense that we are reading the words of an unreliable narrator – which only adds to the intrigue.
Questions around blame and culpability are indirectly raised, as Eva considers issues around parenting, and whether evil can be innate even in a child. It’s gripping, completely believable and hugely unsettling. Unlike many film adaptations I’ve seen, I feel that the film adaptation of this novel is absolutely bang on. However, reading the novel gives you all the intricacies and details of a family torn apart by this horrendous event, and beyond. It builds tension in a way that a 2 hour film couldn’t. It examines the relationship between a repulsive son, and a mother who never wanted to have any children in the first place (and after reading about this little bastard I can’t say I blame her).
Ahead of its release in the cinemas, I wanted to post about how much I loved The Book Thief.
The novel is narrated by Death, who in my opinion is a brilliant compere for a book set in Nazi Germany. The title character is in fact a young girl called Liesel who is sent to live with a fierce foster mother and a gentle foster father during WW2. After her brother dies on the train journey to her new foster home, Liesel steals her first book, which has been dropped in the snow – and it is from this point that Death tells her story.
The descriptions are beautiful, and Death consistently checks himself, peppering Liesel’s story with little asides such as ‘A Re-Assuring Announcement’ and ‘A Small Theory’. As the narrator, he is portrayed as not entirely confident, a little unsure about the way of human life, and above all deeply empathetic with human struggle. In short, Death is incredibly endearing.
Although Liesel is the main plot focus for this book, I’ll leave you with a short exert from Death’s description of a German town, because I think it’s stunning writing and will hopefully be a good taster. I really urge you to read the novel before you see the film, because it would be such a shame to miss out on written descriptions like this:
“The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked amongst the redness.Earlier, kids had been playing hopscotch there, on the street that looked like oil-stained pages. When I arrived I could still hear the echoes. The feet tapping the road. The children-voices laughing, and the smiles like salt, but decaying fast.Then, bombs.”
I used to think rabbits were shit. We’ve had several, and there was only one I actually liked, because it was a badass who used to escape all the time and chill on the lawn. I reckon Monty would have fit right in with the crew at Watership Down.
You’ve probably been traumatised by the film adaptation of this novel on at least one occasion during your childhood. But don’t let that stop you reading because the book is joyous. Reading it for the first time as an adult I think only enhanced my enjoyment, because I sort of ‘got’ that the rabbits had a secret language and they didn’t understand the human world. The story goes something like this. The slightly clairvoyant rabbit Fiver predicts that the warren is in great danger, and implores his friend Hazel to evacuate as many rabbits from the warren as he can. Hazel breaks away from the warren and leads a group of rabbits away. True to Fiver’s premonition, the warren is destroyed by men who (rather horrifically gas all the rabbits). Hazel must now lead the homeless rabbits, so they can establish a new warren elsewhere.
The main plot is broken up by some of the ‘folk tales’ the rabbits like to tell each other, and snippets from other pieces of literature at the start of every chapter – which feels all very charming. But there’s a lot of violence and angst around the structure of the rabbit’s society, which tips the novel into something more than a children’s book. Generally it feels like quite a creative way of writing animal literature (certainly for its time at least). The bonds between some of the rabbits are lovely (as you might expect), which brings an overall warmth to the story.
I know I promised ‘jolly’ in my next post, and I featured a tragic Duchess two posts ago – but I’d recently given this play a re-read and thought I’d write about how good it was before it disappeared to the back of the bookshelf once again.
This is probably the most complicated piece of literature I have posted so far, and like Shakespeare, I’d recommend a quick once over on a plot summary beforehand.
The play focuses on the social issues of life in the court, including in particular, the tragedy of being a woman. How very modern of Webster. Like Othello, there are moments when the male characters in this play are scheming and manipulative, and the central female character falls victim to tragedy when she attempts to be independent in a male-dominated court. It’s a particularly disturbing vision of mankind, but I find the plot and character intricacies so engaging.
And I’m probably just feeling a little macabre because it’s February and our heating is on the blink.
The recently widowed Duchess of Malfi has fallen in love with her steward, Antonio. Her evil brothers, the incestuous Ferdinand and venomous Cardinal, do not wish to share their inheritance with her and forbid her from remarrying. She forbids them and elopes in secret (go girl) and has three children with Antonio. The Duchess and Antonio must plan their escape, and confides in her servant Daniel de Bosola, without realising that he is Ferdinand’s spy. Tragedy ensues with lots of switching sides, corruption, murder, execution and it all generally gets a bit messy. But it’s a fantastic story, and I’m desperate to go and see it onstage.
I’ve noticed I’ve gone a bit trigger-happy with the psychological crime thrillers on this blog so far, which is weird because I’d say it’s my least familiar genre. I’ll try and find something more jolly for the next post.
Anyway, not to detract from how readable I found this novel.
As dreary as the opening chapters seem, a sense of intrigue is created almost immediately and I found myself charging through the book in order to find out what the hell was going on.
The story begins with the heavily pregnant Jane arriving in Berlin, where her partner Petra has found them an apartment. The descriptions of the surrounding area are Gothic and bleak, with a spooky church looming just across the square. As Jane settles in for the night she hears the neighbors having what sounds like a fearsome row: a man bellowing and a child sobbing. The next day Jane sees a girl in a red, hooded coat darting across the courtyard, her hard-face caked in make-up. She later encounters the girl on the stairs and realises that Anna is the daughter of her neighbour Dr. Alban Mann, who she heard shouting the previous. Determined that Mann is abusing his daughter, Jane begins her own investigation, which leads her to places where she isn’t welcome.
A heavily pregnant protagonist only adds to the sense of peril, especially when she starts poking around. I felt a little on edge for Jane throughout, which I think only added to the tremendous tension. You’ll definitely need a brew and a good sit down after this one.
I think any narrative that gives you a real insight into a character’s mind is a clever thing. As much as I hated Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (sorry), it worked incredibly hard at revealing the clockwork inner-workings of a twisted human mind, which I appreciate is quite a feat. Robert Browning’s narrative works even harder and does it in 56 lines.
The poem begins with an emissary arriving at the Duke of Ferrara’s house, representing the family of a prospective new wife for him. It is told from the Duke’s perspective as he shows the emissary around his house, and shows him a portrait of his ‘last Duchess’ on the wall. From here, the Duke reveals himself to be an intensely jealous individual: paranoid, possessive and chauvinistic. He also absolutely loves himself. He’s sort of like the Robin Thicke of the Italian Renaissance generation.
However, things take a much more sinister turn towards the end, as the Duke reveals that he put a stop to all of his Duchess’ smiles, and then breezily continues the tour of his art collection without elaborating further on quite how. Language wise it’s very easy, and since it’s only 56 lines long, you can read Robert’s Browning’s dramatic monologue here.
Magic realism is one of my favourite literary genres. It’s a bit of a daft phrase, and people write tomes on how it should be defined. Apparently there’s a difference between magical realism, marvellous realism and magic reality. It reminds me of that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, with the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea.
Essentially the gist of it is: a straight-talking, matter of fact narrative whilst presenting magical happenings and themes like they’re no big deal.
Although magic realism dates back to the 1920’s, it’s often associated with Latin American literature. I don’t know whether it’s something to do with political upheaval or certain cultural contexts, but the most extraordinary bits of writing seem to come from Latin American writers, and Isabel Allende is no exception.
I’m not going to weigh in on the whole Garcia Marquez vs Allende thing. There are some similarities between the two, which is probably why I like this book so much. But I also think Allende has a characteristic style in her own right, which sets her well apart from the ‘Godfather’ of magic realism.
The House of Spirits is a family saga, following the marriage between Clara of the del Valle family and Esteban of the Trueba family. Clara is the most likeable character, with her clairvoyant and telekinetic tendencies and a different way of looking at the world. Esteban on the other hand is fairly despicable, although perhaps much more interesting than Clara. The themes in this novel come thick and fast, with a sense of foreboding building steadily towards the end. It’s extremely layered, as there’s a rather thinly veiled political commentary running throughout, which makes the presence of magic and fantasy even more interesting.
There are few people quite so disturbing in their general mannerisms as Marco Pierre White. There were those bizarre appearances a couple of years ago when he replaced Gordon Ramsay on Hell’s Kitchen and spent the entire time quietly stalking around the kitchen twisting the point of a chef’s knife into his palm, like some deranged psychopath. According to his cookery shows, his sole companion is a stoic looking Japanese man who also doubles as his taxi driver. And then there are those deep set beady little eyes blinking menacingly beneath a mop of wild-looking hair.
OF COURSE I would want to read this guy’s autobiography.
There seem to be a lot of fairly bland personalities in the world of the professional kitchen, and then those who leap into the limelight and are looked down upon for doing so by the ones who never leave the stove. Chef White seems to have gained notoriety as rumours of his eccentric behaviour and quick temper have leaked out of the kitchen and into the public domain.
It sounds pretty lame and try-hard that there is a chef out there who’s had a real ‘rock n roll’ lifestyle, and from the outside looking in, how rock n roll can dotting sorbet on a plate really be? But with 18 hour days standing on your feet and bending over a stove 7 days a week, it’s no wonder that old Marco occasionally liked to blow off steam.
His autobiography details a rather sad childhood through to his days as a complete workaholic and finally the moment he handed back his three Michelin stars after becoming the youngest chef to collect all of them. His tone is frank and personal throughout.
It’s no literary masterpiece, but he has had an interesting life and I feel like it would even appeal to people who have no interest in restaurants.
And I can’t blame anyone for selling out advertising stock cubes when they’ve paid they’re dues like he has.
I have never read a Shakespeare play blind. I’ve always read the plot summary, or watched the film before getting stuck into the text. If I didn’t, it would be like trying to read Chinese. Shakespeare did invent about two thousand words, so I maybe it was like reading another language even for his contemporaries.
Once you figure out what the deal is Shakespeare is awesome. As the number one best-selling writer of all time, that’s a whole load of conversations you can have as well. I’ll be posting all my Shakespeare favourites on the blog, the first of which is Othello.
The play begins with a conversation between Roderigo, a rich gentleman, and Iago, an officer in the Venetian army. Roderigo is upset because a secret marriage has taken place between Othello, a Moorish general in the Venetian army and Desdemona, who Roderigo is in love with. Iago hates Othello for promoting Cassio, another officer, above him and for allegedly sleeping with his wife Emilia (something Iago probably made up). He swears to manipulate Othello to his advantage and so the tragedy begins.
Iago is famously known as the star of this particular show, so I won’t repeat how brilliantly wicked and scheming he is. But I will say how he blows any other literary sociopath out of the water. Patrick Bateman has nothing on this guy. Iago is intelligent, cunning and completely bent on destruction. But he does it all through mind games and getting other people to do the violence bit for him. Really clever play, and a really great plot.