Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Monday, May 30, 2011

"Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" by Patrick Süskind

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille begins life as an unwanted baby boy in 18th century Paris. As he grows, he doesn't develop a conscience or an ethical set of values, but he does have the most amazingly well-developed sense of smell, allowing him to parse out thousands of individual scents. Lacking a moral compass along with any sort of body odor, Grenouille's ambition to create the ultimate perfume drives him to the murder of sweet innocent virgins.

Am I the only person in the world who thought this book was just a little bit ridiculous? I could handle the unscented boy with the most sensitive and talented olfactory nerves in the world, but there was a bit too much implausibility heaped on top of that. By the time I got to the (um, spoiler?) scent-induced town-wide orgy, I just had to laugh at how silly it all was. Maybe that's because I've never had the chance to participate in a town-wide orgy myself, scent-induced or no. But maybe that's because the concept is a bit too far-fetched.

In addition to the aforementioned need to suspend more disbelief than I found possible, there was not much in the way of character development. And I just have to mention that adult ticks have eight legs, not six. (Don't most people know this?) But I couldn't fault the writing, and the story itself was interesting (without ever reaching critical mass) and certainly unique.

The best part of this book may be the inscription I found in my used copy. Some poor sap wrote (among other things): "Behind the fascinating murder story is the notion that we are attracted to people not for their physical attributes or for their deep intellect, but for their 'fragrance' which we perceive unconsciously. Maybe I'm odd, but I find this concept somewhat sexy." And then the girl he gave it to sold the book. Guess she didn't like the way he smelled.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

"The Giver" by Lois Lowry

The kids and I read The Giver as a bedtime story over the past few weeks. My oldest child couldn't stand the slow pace and read ahead, finishing the book weeks ago. I love it when that happens! Though it very rarely does. The only problem with that is, as with Holes by Louis Sachar, sometimes I don't end up finishing the book myself. But I finished this one!

The Giver is the story of eleven-year-old Jonas, who lives in a perfect community pervaded by Sameness. Everyone is equal, there is no pain, each person's job is chosen for them--even family members are put together through a selection process!--and there is no music, no color, and no emotion. Jonas is selected to be the community's Receiver of Memory, and the more he learns, the more he realizes that his way of life is far from flawless; it's more dystopian than utopian.

The story left me with a lot of unanswered questions. We never learn how the community came to be, its location (was it on Earth?), how extensive it was, why it was made, who created the rules, how they controlled the weather, whether Elsewhere really existed. Though I wish the book had explained these things, I must admit the story is full and complete even without further elucidation.

Except for the end of the book, which I want to talk about. I will try to be as un-spoilery as possible, but it's going to be difficult, so you may want to skip this paragraph if you plan to read the book. I won't say exactly what happened at the end, but I will say that it is somewhat ambiguous. I asked my kids what they thought had happened. My oldest took it at face value: Jonas reached his destination. Bookworm Child was ambivalent: maybe Jonas reached Elsewhere, or maybe he had gone in a circle and was back at his own community. Neither of them thought what had crossed my mind, though, which was the story of The Little Match Girl.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"I have just the thing for you!"

As lovely as it is to have a bookworm for a child, it can be a bit frustrating when said child is both a voracious and a very picky reader. The "I don't know what I want to read" dilemma is a problem I love to solve, except when everything that I suggest is rejected.

Last night at bedtime, when the unending What To Read whine started up again, I was thrilled to be able to tell Bookworm Child, "I have just the thing for you!" I pulled a cute pink book out of the middle of my TBR pile and handed it to her: The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot. I could tell by the gleam in her eye that she was immediately optimistic about this one. She ambled obediently off to bed, new treasure in her hands.

Bookworm Child got up before her alarm went off this morning and came to find me, informing me that she was almost finished with her book. My first question: "Did you SLEEP last night?" With a wry grin she assured me that she had. Of course, I was glad she'd enjoyed the book, but that also meant my book selection success was far too short-lived.

I tried for a longer one this time: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I've heard wonderful things about it, though I haven't yet had a chance to read it myself. But no dice. Maybe she'll enjoy it more in a few years.

Meanwhile, BC is busy with the next book in Cabot's series, soon to be followed by #3 and #4. AND I have two other books waiting in the wings for her:

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall. We've all read the first two books in the series. They're sweet and timeless stories, though I think I've always been more enthralled by the covers than by what's inside the book. This new cover is no exception.

And, yes, yet another book I chose because of its cover: Horton Halfpott by Tom Angleberger. Well, it was a combination of the cover and the ridiculously long subtitle: The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor or The Loosening of M'Lady Luggertuck's Corset. Who could resist? Not me, anyway.

Monday, May 23, 2011

"My Name is Memory" by Ann Brashares

I'm going to have to be more careful about what I put on my wish list. This book screams
(I can already picture the movie version. Alex Pettyfer will star.) Not only do I dislike books that scream at me--a whisper is much nicer--but Twilight? What a thing to aspire to. Although I suppose it's relatively easy to understand how an author might want to emulate Stephenie Meyer in hopes of a career that follows the same trajectory as hers.

This is the story of Lucy and Daniel and their eternal looooohgve. (Sorry, I gagged on that.) These two have spent centuries of lifetimes in near misses, with Daniel (and his exceptional memory, hence the title) pursuing Lucy (a.k.a. Sophia, and sometimes Constance) through a series of reincarnations. Which, of course, never quite match up well enough for a romance, until they meet in high school in 2004 and finally Lucy isn't married to Daniel's brother, or 80 years older than he is. I guess this is the sort of book people are talking about when they refer to a "paranormal romance." Romance! Why didn't someone warn me?

I should have known this book might not be for me--the author also wrote the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books. But this one was supposed to be for grown-ups!  However, a book doesn't become a book for adults just by having one of your characters drink bourbon and say a few rude words. With some not-so-careful editing, this would have been yet another example of the drivel that is being published for teenagers these days.

Especially towards the end, I was ever-more-frequently telling myself THIS IS SO STUPID. And yet . . . I kept reading. I mean, I kind of feel obligated to finish my Book Club books. But I also must admit I had to find out what was going to happen. The story wasn't necessarily compelling, but it was interesting enough. And I literally gasped aloud (I probably even raised my eyebrows) when I figured out why Lucy was so uncomfortable with Daniel after he came back, so I suppose I was invested in the narrative to some extent.

If you plan to read this book, you must be warned that it ends without a resolution, leaving the story wide open for a sequel. Which, as far as I can tell, hasn't been written yet. So if that sort of thing bothers you, step away from the novel.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Leave Her to Heaven" by Ben Ames Williams

I first heard about this book from Lesa, who has seen the "creepy suspense film" adaptation from 1945, but hasn't read the book. She asked me to nab a copy for her if I saw it, so . . . I did! And, of course, I read it before sending it to her.

This is the story of an unbelievably possessive and manipulative young woman named Ellen Berent. She sets her sights on author Richard Harland almost as soon as she meets him, contriving to marry him in the space of two weeks. Her destructive jealousy leaves no room for relationships with other people, including Richard's younger brother or Ellen's own adopted sister. The story is suspenseful and steeped in mystery, leading the reader to guess what increasingly cold and calculating steps Ellen will take to keep Richard to herself.

From the beginning, Williams' writing reminded me of Jack London's with its no-frills, straightforward story in an outdoorsy setting (also because it kind of dragged at times); but as the story went on, it made me think of Richard Adams' The Girl in a Swing, only with Americans instead of Brits. And Richard Harland is nowhere near as fey and oblivious as Alan Desland. But Ellen is certainly a mirror image of Käthe (or Karin)--perhaps even more abominable and less plausible.

In all, it was a decent (though certainly not overwhelmingly brilliant) read. I have a feeling the movie may be better than the book.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Hey, want a free book?

Hearts and Minds is a campus novel set in a fictional all-female college at Cambridge University. Rosy Thornton has written a story centered on the conflict experienced (and caused) by St Radegund's first male Head of House, giving a glimpse into the inner workings of the college. From student protests to ethical dilemmas regarding donations, Ms Thornton paints a picture of a setting she knows well as a lecturer and Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

I've got a copy of this book that I'd love to give away to YOU. Just leave a comment with your email address and I will choose a random winner on Sunday, May 22. It doesn't matter where you live--anyone is welcome to sign up to win.

If you're feeling extra chatty, you should also tell me about the book that was your most favorite read of the past year.