The Big Read

No. 71 – Perfume, Patrick Süskind

This books full title is Perfume, The Story of a Murderer which is a very accurate description. However, the title in itself is also ambiguous. How is something so inconspicuous as perfume associated with the violence of murder?

The story straight away won me over because it is set in eighteenth century Paris. For me there is no better era to set a book; why pick anything else? Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into the most stench filled place on earth, a Paris slum, but he has the most sublime gift, an absolute sense of smell. He can smell everything, things that to you and me have no odour whatsoever. Not only that, he can remember every smell and he catalogues each carefully away in his mind to create the most exquisite perfumes.

This book is so sensuously written. It is a credit to the translation that such atmosphere and feeling has survived from the original German. This book relies heavily on the description of the smells and it is expertly done so as to be completely understandable and also to conjure up the feelings that certain smells create. I am known amongst my friends to comment on how something smells like a certain period of time or memory of mine because that is the power that scent has. It can transport us through time and influence our actions.

Where does the murder come into it I hear you ask? Now that would be telling. But I will say this Grenouille is no ordinary perfumer. His extraordinary talents come at a cost to his personality and he is distinctly unlovable. The story of his life is simple and quite short. There is a really weird bit in the middle where Grenouille lives in a cave for seven years and barely sees daylight but apart from that it is his quest to create the perfect perfume.

In terms of the characters, you don’t really get emotionally involved with anyone. It is the kind of book you read as a passive observer. I am still unsure whether I like this style in general but I must admit it does work in this context. Grenouille is so detached it helps us to see his world view but also it means that the story moves along quite quickly because we don’t have to feel when someone dies.

Now it is time for a confession because I have absolutely no idea how you say Grenouille. I have been going for Gren- wee in my head but to be honest I have no clue. Please make suggestions in the comments I would be very grateful.

All in all, it was a really enjoyable read. It is a good book but I am really surprised that it is on this list. It isn’t particularly extraordinary in any way. I don’t feel the way I often do when finishing at BBC Top 100 book that is, thoughtful and as if my life has been enriched. It is a different kind of good from Midnight’s Children or I Capture the Castle but still really enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: give it a go for entertainment value.

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The Big Read

No.100 – Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie Read 18/7/15

I had hoped to save No.100 of the BBC Top 100 for my last book as it has such a neatness to it but it didn’t quite work out that way. Being over 600 pages long Midnight’s Children counts as one of the 15 long books I am trying to read this year. I had originally intended it to be only books over 700 pages but I buckled. Anyway, I picked up Midnight’s Children as I continue to avoid War and Peace. 

The story is narrated by Saleem Sinai who like a thousand others across India was born at the exact hour of India’s independence. He and these other so called “Midnight’s Children” have mysterious and magnificent powers and as the letter to Saleem from the Prime Minister proclaims, there lives shall be a reflection of the new India’s.

As much as I love classics I also love reading books outside of the western tradition and Midnight’s Children is an excellent specimen. I learnt so much about modern Indian history as this book is as much India’s life story and it is Saleem’s. Much like The God of Small Things it is a very stylish book full of evocative language and unconventionally structured. The linguistic style works perfectly to conjure up a world both alien and familiar.

I loved that the narrative told the story of Saleem’s grandparents and parents so that we come to know the journey of the characters that have such an impact on Saleem’s journey. This bigger picture means we see the significance of the smaller details that keep appearing like the silver spittoon and perforated sheets. I enjoyed the theme of recurrence, of things too neat to be a coincidence. It would have been much too neat had I left this book until last, unnervingly so, but the way things turned out has restored my faith in the random nature of the world.

Despite the magical realism of this book it is a very honest depiction of a troubled country. It doesn’t shy away from controversy and upset quite a few politicians I am sure. I liked that about it, the lines between what is real and not real blur at times except the historical events. I don’t know how accurately Rushdie describes them but there was never any doubt in my mind what actually happened and which bits were artistic licence. Yet, he blends the two together so well that I could almost accept the entire book as the truth. Almost.

My only criticism is that it is long. I know I should have guessed that with the 647 pages but there aren’t 647 pages worth of events or characters in this story so there are moments that feel like filler. These parts are well written and enjoyable enough I just couldn’t help thinking when is something going to happen. In these parts, where I found myself drifting off slightly, was usually hidden some small clue as to the events that were yet to come. Had I been paying attention maybe I would have solved a few mysteries a little quicker.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: people who don’t like historical fiction.

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The Big Read

No. 46 – Animal Farm, George Orwell Read 2/7/15

Now if you have been with me here at Bernie and Books for a while, first of all thanks for sticking around, but also I am sure you will know my feelings about the only other work by George Orwell I have read Nineteen Eighty-Four. I shall say no more but read the review if you like. I approached Animal Farm with a little trepidation but I tried to keep an open mind.

Animal Farm is the story of Manor Farm where the animals over throw and drive out their farmer Jones. At first the animals form and live in a peaceful republic but the pigs, Snowball and Napoleon start to use their superior intelligence for their own gains. Now it was quite obvious from the first page that this book is a political satire and a criticism of communism, I had expected nothing less from Orwell, but it says an awful lot about human nature. “Human nature? But it’s about animals!” I hear you cry and that is true but Orwell uses the different animals to show the different levels of society. It is very cleverly done, the horses working tirelessly without a thought for themselves, the sheep blindly following whatever they are told, the ducks and chickens doing their small part and my favourite of all the cat, who slyly manages to avoid doing any work are all people I have seen in social structures around the world.

With the pigs Orwell shows brilliantly how power can be abused and manipulated. How those with power can very subtly oppress and make you believe you are free at the same time. This book was written in 1943-44 and it is almost like a dummies guide to understanding what was happening in dictatorships across the world at that time. It said on the cover of my edition it was a obvious criticism of Stalin but it can also be read as a criticism of Hitler, Mussolini and any other dictator you can think of. Most tellingly it is still relevant today. From North Korea to Syria and Iraq, even in Britain I see the horses and I see the pigs. This book has made me ask are we really equal?

It is an excellent political statement. I just can’t stand the narrative. It is all statement no story. At times I felt like I was reading a non-fiction book rather than a novella. Perhaps this is was original when Orwell was writing. Perhaps people weren’t used to analysing a text for its political subtleties so it had to be brutally honest. I don’t know. I just like to be credited with a bit more intelligence as a reader. I have thought long and hard about this because I didn’t want my previous experience with Orwell to influence me and I see much more than I did with Nineteen Eighty-Four ‘the point’ of the book but I still have issues with the method.

Rating: 3/5

Would recommend to: anyone trying to understand politics.

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The Big Read

No.48 – Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy Read 24/6/15

Not Far From the Maddening Crowd as I have been calling it for a long time whoops.

Anyway. Now I know Hardy has this miserable reputation so I wasn’t exactly skipping at the prospect of reading this novel but the ebook was free so I started it on a train journey. Let me tell you something it wasn’t so bad. Does it make you feel warm and fuzzy inside? No. Better than Dickens? Most definitely.

So Bathsheba (pronounce Bahth-she-bah I know what a name) Everdene (no relation to Katniss) is this independent, strong willed, very beautiful women and everybody falls in love with her. But proud Bathsheba won’t settle for just anybody and holds out for true love. Although, when she finds it, things don’t quite work out as planned.

The book is set in Victorian Wessex and focuses on the farming community of Weatherby a fictional village. Now I am from Wessex and I consider myself to be quite knowledgeable in areas of pastoral country scenes but I wouldn’t have had a clue what was happening a lot of the time if it wasn’t for the footnotes in my edition. Quite a lot of dialect is used and there are a lot of farming terms used which I had never heard before. Hardy uses these elements to create a really atmospheric story. He beautiful captures the simple nature of life in the countryside from the hedge rows to the farm houses.

His characters are…. frustrating. The only one I like is Gabriel Oak, the laid back farmer. Every one else is difficult to get on with. They all have there flaws. Bathsebha’s pride, Boldwood’s possessiveness, Sargent Troy’s arrogance, they make for exasperating reading. But Hardy shows us just enough of their good qualities to stop them being unbearable. As I was reading it part of me hoped they would get what they deserved. Sometimes I thought that was happiness, sometimes I thought is was punishment for their sins and in a way that’s what happens in the end.

The novel is quite slow in pace. This isn’t unpleasant, it feels like a gentle stroll along country roads. But then the ending was a huge shock. I really couldn’t believe it. Scandal! Drama! In this tiny fictional town! I read the last few chapters or so in a complete rush because I had to know what happened. Who would have expected that from a provincial story from the 1870s?

I think this is probably one of Hardy’s more accessible works. I know a little about a few others and think I shall struggle with those more. Still I really enjoyed it. It took me back to my part of the world in a way that was very different from Jane Austen. The people were so much more real for their struggles and as a result more alive. This was one of those classics where I am sure the literary worth was great but I didn’t noticed because I could only think about the story.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: ease you into slightly heavier classics.

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The Big Read

No. 91 – The Godfather, Mario Puzo Read 2/5/15

After the rather dark and crusty world of Bleak House I fancied a bit of a shift in time and place. So The Godfather was about as different as it could get. I had seen maybe the first 15 minutes of the film a few years ago but I knew of course the general sort of plot. New York Italian gangsters.

Vito Corleone is the Don of the Corleone family. Head of the family olive oil business he is also a notorious mafioso. He commands the respect of the entire Italian community of New York and the USA. His friendship is invaluable and people flock to ask this most powerful of men a favour for which they are forever in his debt. The Godfather follows the Corleone family through the underworld of 1940s New York, a tale of blackmail, murder and revenge.

Now I didn’t really expect to enjoy The Godfather but it was so compelling I couldn’t help but like it. It is so well written the world is completely absorbing. For some reason when you are reading it, it all seems completely reasonable and logical. This world has its own rules and they don’t seem so bad. It is only when you stop reading and come back to the real world that it sinks in how brutal and cruel it is. I must warn you that this book is very graphically violent. But the violence is described in such a casual nonchalant way that it isn’t particularly shocking. You just accept it as the characters do in the book.

I don’t really know how to classify this book because my instinct is Thriller/Suspense but when I think about it I can’t really pick out an actually mystery. There is no problem to solve as thrillers often have, this book is more about getting to the truth. The truth of what it is like to be a part of the Mafia. It is gripping and you have to know how it ends. You care about the characters without having any empathy for them. You want to know what happens to them but you don’t really mind what the outcome is so long as you know. The mystery is this world and as a reader I got a buzz from learing secrets so carefully guarded. It is like the Sicilian law of omerta (silence) has been broken and all the Mafia’s depravity laid bare for all to see.

That is why I feel this book is so incredibly clever. It creates for the reader the mindset of this world. Concerned but detached. It comes alive so vividly. I also really enjoy the complex characters Puzo creates. Those who are clever and ruthless and loving all at the same time. It is a strange world and an excellent read. I never would have read it if I hadn’t started on the BBC Top 100 and I am so glad I did because it brought me The Godfather.

Rating: 5/5

Would recommend to: adults (definitely not suitable for children) who feel disengaged from society.

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The Big Read

No. 79 – Bleak House, Charles Dickens Read 21/4/15

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to be done with Bleak House. It is my third Dickens from the list, leaving only A Tale of Two Cities, and it is my second book over 700 pages of the 15 I am trying to read this year. You might have noticed that at the rate I am going, I am never going to make it to 15 and I realise this. December is going to be really fun.

Anyway Bleak House. Rather than bore you with my thoughts on Dickens again I shall just leave links to my reviews of David Copperfield and Great Expectations here. However, Bleak House has opened my mind slightly to old Charlie. Whereas before the door was firmly shut it is now ajar. Bleak House is my favourite Dickens so far.

The novel is a satire of a Victorian court system called the Court of Chancery. I shall warn you now don’t bother trying to understand what this court does because it is impossible and always has been. Anyway, this court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been raging for years and years and nobody can make head nor tail of it but what does happen is that two young people become the ward of a Mr Jarndyce of Bleak House. Our Narrator, Ester Summerson, has also been in the care of Mr Jarndyce since her aunt died, although she didn’t know it, and has been invited by Mr Jarndyce to become the companion of his ward Ada. Ester’s narrative runs parallel to an unknown narrator who deals with all the usually Dickensian stuff.

The beginning few chapters of Bleak House had me going “Oh God not again”. I can perfectly illustrate my point with this quote,

“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.”

This is one of 5 paragraphs in the first chapter that mention fog. If you make it through the fog you eventually get to Ester’s Narrative which is so much more enjoyable. After a while the Dickens narrator, as I like to think of it, settles down as well and we get into the stories of some other people. That is the other thing about Bleak House there are a lot of characters to keep track of lots of law workers, lots of poor people and they tend to bleed into one.

I was rather disappointed to find out the Bleak House, wasn’t really bleak at all. In fact it is a comfortable, warm environment filled with love and affection. I know. What the hell Dickens? Don’t mislead me like that. The bleak side of Bleak House comes from the Court and the lawyers who uphold it. There is some very good social commentary made about the poor of London and how the Court cripples people but also about the power of the rich. Surprisingly, I found it still relevant today.

If you can wrap your head around all that there is an excellent mystery that runs through both narratives. I mean it’s no Gone Girl but it was enough to keep me turning the pages, if very very slowly. What I did like about this book was the way the characters weave through both narratives and Dickens throws in a few surprises along the way. You have your suspicions as a reader, some of mine turned out to be true, others I missed completely. It was by far the most enjoyable Dickens I have read and I am going into A Tale of Two Cities with a little less dread for having read Bleak House.

Rating: 4/5 (generous maybe more like 3.75)

Would recommend to: start with this one if you are new to Dickens.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court_of_Chancery

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The Big Read

No.87 – Brave New World, Aldous Huxley Read 19/4/15

I’ll admit I love historic predictions of the future because it is fascinating to me to see what they got right and wrong. Whilst reading Brave New World I was wondering “did Huxley invent this entirely or were there already experiments of this kind in 1931?” Because the world he describes isn’t so far off.

In the year AD 2540 civilisation is no longer born, it is created in test tubes. Each baby is first engineered and then condition to play its own role in society. The world needs Alpha-plus intellectual individuals but it also needs Epsilon semi-morons to man machines. Whole factories can be manned by identical sets of twins all grown specifically to that purpose. “Everyone belongs to everyone else” and thanks to the drug soma nobody is unhappy. Except Bernard Marx. Perhaps a visit to one of the few remaining Savage reservations can cure him of his disillusionment?

Comparisons to 1984 are inevitable mostly because these two novels are very similar. That being said, I enjoyed Brave New World much more and I think that the point it makes is much better said. What I found so relevant in Brave New World, which is missing from Orwell’s novel, is the consumerism. Citizens are conditioned to play country sports, but hate the countryside so that they use the transport network to play their favourite sports but live in the cities where they will consume more goods. Those sports involve complex equipment so that there is always demand for the factories to supply. It is very clever and in many ways I see similar things in our society as well. For example, running is free and yet we still pay huge sums of money ever year to run on the spot indoors because of the psychology of ‘going to the gym’.

The writing of this novel was really engaging. There is a chapter where 3 conversations happen at once but every line is a different conversation. I really enjoyed that. It felt original. It helped to establish this idea of lack of individuality. These individual voices getting lost in the mass of society. I really enjoyed that. And of course the Shakespeare references. Having studied The Tempest twice in my academic life I got rather early on that the title is taken from that play. However, I was surprised the route the Shakespeare references took. Huxley makes quite an important point about art’s role in society and its relationship with happiness. Well I thought it was important. I know I wouldn’t want to live in a world without Shakespeare.

The ending was… okay I guess. In the forward to the edition I read Huxley said he would have written a different ending so I guess I am allowed to say it wasn’t so great. There was a moment when I had high hopes but then no. The nicest surprise was that the ending was set near where Huxley was born, Godalming, which isn’t so far from where I live. In fact many of the local towns and villages get a mention in the last chapter. Nice to know in Huxley’s fictional universe my home town still exists.

Rating: 3/5

Would recommend to: science fiction/dystopia fans.

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