Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Title: Birdsong
Author:  Sebastian Faulks
List:  #13 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading?  Maybe.

The back of my copy of the book described the novel as intensely romantic.  Even though there was also mention of the main character going to war, I thought I was starting a love story.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The book does actually start out as an “intensely romantic” love story.  There are almost romance novel worthy (or, really, not being one to read romance novels, what I expect are romance novel worthy) scenes describing the illicit relationship of the main character, Stephen, with his host’s wife.  After the first section of the book, however, all romance departs as we are plunged into the grimy, depressing, and hopeless trenches of the First World War.  The previous romance is barely alluded to; instead, we are swept up in the futile existence of British troops manning the trenches, digging tunnels for mines, and being blown up my enemy shells.

To the author’s credit, these descriptions are so vivid that it is possible to imagine what war meant for the soldiers on the front lines.  And most heartbreakingly, it is possible to imagine the enormous waste of human lives due to command ineptitude at the Battle of the Somme as wave after wave of young men slowly marched across no man’s land to their inevitable demise.  In that respect, the novel is not pretty.  It is not romantic.  It is intensely realistic.  And that, perhaps, is what makes the novel worth reading.  Because, as a character living fifty years later in the 1970s points out, even then we had already forgotten the wretchedness of trench warfare and the unspeakable horror the soldiers endured on a daily basis.

And so, Birdsong is not intensely romantic.  There is romance at the beginning and the end, but it seems disjointed and almost indecent.  Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters welcomes death because after what he has seen, he can’t imagine going back to his wife and resuming a normal life.  In a way, after reading the trench sequences, I thought the same thing:  after all that death and destruction, how can the author describe, and how can I imagine, happiness and romance again?  Maybe the point is that we have to go on living, have to keep hoping, and have to create our own opportunities for happiness.  Whatever the moral is, this book is not a romance.  It is a war story through and through.  And as a war story, for people who want to know what soldiers actually experienced, it may be worth the read.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The God of Small Things

Title: The God of Small Things
Author:  Arundhati Roy
List:  #85 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading?  Yes.

The God of Small Things is a book about what happens to a set of “two egg” twins, Estha and Rahel, after the death of their cousin, Sophie Mol.  It is also a story about what happened before.  Sophie Mol’s funeral takes place in the first few pages, but it is not until the end that we fully learn the circumstances surrounding her death and its aftermath.  Instead, a sense of foreboding permeates the novel as Roy slowly reveals snippets of the story while describing a set of damaged twins twenty-four years later.

The story alternates between two time periods:  the twins at seven and the twins at thirty-one.  At seven, the twins are inseparable, thinking of themselves as unit.  At thirty-one, they have been separated for twenty-four years and Estha rarely speaks, while Rahel feels hollow inside.  There is a sense that this is due to the twins’ lingering guilt and grief, but the extent of those feelings is not apparent until the final pages.

The most striking part of this novel is the author’s use of language.  Roy does not feel bound by the constraints of grammar, but molds language to serve her needs.  In doing so, she eloquently conveys the tumultuous thoughts running through the children’s heads, and, indeed, at times reading the novel is like reading Estha’s and Rahel’s thoughts.  Roy uses the language to reveal their private games and ideas, and their feelings in various circumstances, like when they get in trouble.  For example, when the twins’ mother scolds them, Roy capitalizes and splits up words to show how Estha and Rahel interpret that scolding.  A statement that their mother will discuss their behavior with them later becomes “Lay. Ter.” in the children’s minds, emphasizing how they dread that conversation and recognize their mother’s displeasure.

Towards the end of the novel, Roy also describes how in Malayalam, the native language for the part of southern India where the twins reside, the end of one word blends with the next.  This explains why Estha and Rahel think of the owl that lives in their family’s pickling plant as “a nowl.”  Again, these word games help us connect to the children and understand how they see the world.

The novel is worth reading for the language alone, but Roy’s method of storytelling also makes for a unique reading experience.  While reading this book, I definitely did not feel like the story was one that had been told many times before, and because I felt so connected to the characters’ thoughts, I could not wait to find out exactly what happened to turn two innocent seven year olds into two damaged thirty-one year olds.  I would definitely recommend picking up this book for an interesting read, especially if you are looking for something different.

Monday, September 12, 2011


Title: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Author:  Patrick Süskind
List:  #71 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading?  Yes.

Perfume is a journey of the senses.  To fully appreciate this novel, you need your nose and a sense of smell as much as your eyes and an imagination.  Patrick Süskind's rich descriptions of scents, smells, odors, and stenches create a living scent record of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's world, and without the ability to conjure up the smells in your imagination, you lose much of the richness of the novel.

The main character is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man born in the dirtiest, smelliest part of Paris to a woman who intended to kill him as soon as he was born.  Instead, Grenouille’s mother is executed for his intended murder and the murder of several previous siblings, and Grenouille becomes a ward of the church.  However, he does not find a loving home.  Instead, he is passed on from wet nurse to wet nurse, who all feel there is something unnatural about him because, in smelly eighteenth century France, this baby has absolutely no odor.  Eventually he is placed with a woman who has no sense of smell and he grows up slightly shunned but adequately nourished.

Grenouille’s lack of personal odor is not his only unique characteristic: Grenouille has a fantastic sense of smell.  He can distinguish odors from great distances and can pick out the various components and their quantities from a blended scent.  In fact, Grenouille needs no light to journey in the dark—his nose tells him where everything is and how to find his way.  In his early years, Grenouille enjoys nothing more than to follow his nose to locate the source of a new odor.  As he grows up, he decides that his talents would be best employed as a perfumer, and he dreams of creating a scent that will make everyone adore him.

Grenouille eventually becomes an apprentice to a perfumer, learning the techniques of the trade and creating countless exotic scents that make the perfumer famous.  Grenouille’s most cherished scent, however, is not one of the wonderful perfumes he creates, but the personal odor of a young red-headed virgin just entering puberty.  It is that odor that turns Grenouille into a murderer, and his life becomes devoted to learning all the techniques for extracting scent from all sorts of objects so that he will be able to create his perfect scent.

Grenouille's unfortunate upbringing and passion for odors seem ideal for making him a sympathetic character.  However, something about him made me feel as unsympathetic towards him as the Parisians who shun him for his unnatural odorlessness.  On the other hand, seeing what steps he takes to capture scents is fascinating, as is his ability to absorb knowledge as his skill soars above that of his teachers.  Süskind ends this remarkable book in an unexpected but satisfying way, as the ultimate scent is finally born with a surprising and unanticipated effect on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

O Pioneers!

Title: O Pioneers!
Author:  Willa Cather
List:  #83 on Radcliffe’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading?  Yes.

I remember reading My Ántonia by Willa Cather years ago, for a high school English class.  I can’t really remember the book or what I thought about it, but for some reason I always think of it with distaste.  Consequently, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading O Pioneers!, but because it was short and available online, I decided to give it a try.  And now I really need to reread My Ántonia because I think that for years I may have been dismissing a gem.

O Pioneers! is an enchanting account of a Swedish immigrant pioneer family struggling to make a living on the Nebraska plains.  Recognizing good sense and business talent in his oldest child, a daughter named Alexandra, a father instructs his sons to follow Alexandra’s counsel in running the land and, above all, to keep the land.  Alexandra is an intelligent, independent woman whose risk-taking and innovation causes the family to prosper.  However, her willingness to break with convention is not favored in the rigid Swedish immigrant community, and her two oldest brothers grow resentful of her independence and her desire to give their younger brother opportunities, like college, that the three older children never had.

Willa Cather manages to bring the prairie alive, and, briefly, conveys their beauty and a love of the land.  Even though the novel is only around 130 pages (depending on the version), it is long enough to make a reader sympathize with the struggles of the characters and sense their lost loves and dreams before they fully realize the losses themselves.  Some themes could be explored in more detail, but the novel is a joy to read and its brevity may be, in part, what makes it so sweet.