Tuesday 19 April 2011

Chekhov for Infants

Yesterday a tiny girl, perhaps five or six, came into the shop with her mum and dad.  When they first arrived I was in the office making a cuppa, but Mum said the man turned to the little girl and said, "Right, now, you're not allowed to talk in this shop, or they'll pick you off with an air rifle."  "We're not that bad!" Mum replied.  "Well, I told her it was electric shocks in the last shop!" he laughed, before escorting the poor kid off down to the children's corner.

Back out on the counter, I was ready and waiting when they returned with two children's books.  The dad sighed and shook his head."I don't know why I bother," he said sadly as his wife handed over a note.  "Last week I bought her the complete works of Anton Chekhov and what did she do?  Scribbled all over The Cherry Orchard, made crayon marks right through A Marriage Proposal...  Evidently she's destined to grow up illiterate and never go to a good school."

"That's a bit harsh," I said.  "Perhaps she just doesn't like the Russians - have you tried her on Dickens?"

As they left the shop, I heard a dull thwack as he swiped her over the head with his tourist map, and his voice drifting back from outside, "I'm going to beat literature into you!  Just see if I don't!"

Tuesday 5 April 2011

REVIEW: Perfume, by Patrick Süskind (4*)

(Penguin, 2006)

This book had what I call the 'Madame Bovary effect' on me. That is, while I appreciated the plot, the prose and the social history, I wasn't that bothered about the characters and got to the end of the novel thinking, 'Actually, I didn't really like it that much...' I found myself comparing it to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, with its slightly blunt, spare translation, its intense sensory descriptions and its surreal exaggeration of reality - except that I was blown away by Like Water for Chocolate and wasn't by Perfume.

That said, I can't deny that this is a very accomplished novel. It tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man with an incredible nose who can tease apart the threads of scent in even the most hectic of city streets, differentiate between tiny gradients of fragrance, and discern odours that other people can't sense at all. The most elusive and desirable fragrance he encounters is the scent of a young virgin, and his obsessive pursuit of this ideal, his single-minded determination to create the ultimate perfume distilled from unblemished young women at the height of their perfection, leads him on an sinister quest to find the means to that exquisite end. He’s a hideous character, twisted and frightening in his genuine belief in his own crusade, but at the same time you can’t help admiring his genius and feeling some empathy for him despite his own complete lack of it.

The overwhelming level of olfactory description is definitely the main thing that stays with you as you close the book. Every scent, from flowers to humans to mountain air, is described in a flamboyant and exuberant swell of language. Unlike similar descriptions of taste, for example, or sound, I found it harder to ‘experience’ them as I read, and found that those passages veered from being sublime to, well... a bit much. In fact, that pretty much sums up my feelings about the book as a whole. Sometimes the description was divine, sometimes it was too much. Sometimes the process of perfume distillation and creation was fascinating, sometimes it was too much. Sometimes the more far-fetched or surreal aspects of the plot were deliciously compelling, sometimes they were... yep, you guessed it, too much. This is a novel of excess, of ambition, of genius, with threads of theatricality and black humour running through its pages – and I think every reader will respond differently to the sensory tidal wave. There’s only one way to find out for yourself – strap on your armbands and get swimming!

Source: I bought this book from a local charity shop.

Sunday 3 April 2011

REVIEW: Beach Babylon, by Imogen Edwards-Jones and Anonymous (4*)

(Bantam Press, 2007)

This book was such great fun! I read Hotel Babylon on holiday years ago, but I think this one was even better. In this exposé the anonymous whistle-blower is once again a manager in the hotel industry, but this time of a luxury island resort rather than a London establishment - and it takes things to a whole new level! As in the other Babylon books, all the people, places and madcap events that appear in the book are real, but names and locations have been changed (obviously!) and the bizarre situations the manager finds himself having to cope with have been condensed into one crazy 'week in the life'.

The reader is swept into a world of incredible luxury and privilege. This is a resort where the villas can cost up to $6000 a night, and the guests are so wealthy that they can afford to blow $20,000 on a afternoon's entertainment or $1,500 on a bottle of champagne without batting an eyelid. Not only does our intrepid manager have to cosy up to each and every one of his guests and bend over backwards to keep them happy, but he must also deal with their more outrageous requests, make sure the isolated island has everything it needs on a daily basis, and try to keep his staff functioning and content in the face of daily difficulties.

This is a wonderful piece of escapism, managing to capture both the little bubble of island life, with its daily champagne parties and beach barbeques and celebrity guests, and the all-consuming nightmare of trying to keep such a large resort in the impossibly perfect condition expected by the demanding clientele. Despite the 'world apart' nature of the island, the characters will be painfully familiar to anyone who's ever been on holiday! It's funny, it's dry, it's cringeworthy - and it's brilliant!

Source: I borrowed this book from our shop shelves.