Saturday, September 9, 2017

#CBR9 Review #18: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Just what I needed to take a little break from the lengthy and detailed epic fantasy book I’ve been working on for the past month or do: a sweet and slightly wonky adventure! I just heard of this novel recently, and upon reading Narfna’s positive review of it, I knew it would be great for a little breathing room after reading a couple of more dragging and heavy things as of late. And it was absolutely delightful! Not a masterpiece by any means, but light and fun, and just generally feel-good.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a YA novel, focused on an 18th century English boy of noble birth named Henry “Monty” Montague. The story centers on the “tour of Europe” he and his biracial friend, Percy (loosely inspired by Dido Elizabeth Belle) go on during their last summer together. Along for the ride is also Monty’s tenacious young sister, Felicity. But of course it’s not such a straightforward trip, as havoc ensues and quite the adventure befalls these three companions, leading them into mystery, politics, and danger. It’s not all adventure though, as a large part of this novel is also based on a fluffy, pining romance. And is there really anything better than a fluffy, adorable little love story? I always joke about being so disinterested in love and how it’s a conspiracy, but I think we all know I absolutely live for romantic nonsense and was positively beaming at parts of this story. My heart… it’s been conned!

The adventures had here are wacky and fun, but that’s not what really makes the book. The thing that first and foremost made it enjoyable were the characters throughout, including some wonderful helpers who come in and out of the story along the way. Though really, the 3 main characters at the core of the action are the heart and soul of the whole thing, each of them tying more serious topics into the forefront, which ultimately affect the plot and provide some historical context to the book. It is what I would consider historical fiction, after all, with facts intertwining into a more complete fictional story, though there was a bit of a fantasy/fantastical element at one part that I was a little curious about and not really sure if it completely fit with the rest of the novel. But that little blip didn’t ruin anything for me! Because as I said, it’s the characters which really bring everything to life. So let me gush about each of them for a hot minute! Unnecessary, I know, but, I just adore them:

First and foremost, we have Monty, our fabulous, dapper boy who loves to have fun, get wild, and get into bed with anyone who takes a fancy to him. Which, being a charming lad, is apparently a lot. A lot of the time these dandy-type characters I find in novels (Brideshead Revisited comes to mind) come across as selfish, hedonistic, and reckless. I often wonder if they are indeed just interested in their own lives without a care in the world, or if there is something deeply wrong that no one wants to crack into or help. They hurt people along the way, but are in pain themselves. I found that having Monty as the protagonist had the great effect of balancing his outlandish personality with showing the internal conflict, as well as having people that clearly do care about him but don’t know how to help (or that he doesn’t want to show his suffering to). There is a selfishness to Monty, but also a growth and awareness, in particular in terms of how he has an effect on people: none more so than Percy, for whom Monty has been harbouring romantic feelings for for years on end. But he feels that this is unreciprocated, and so the soft, sad pining commences. It also brings into play the fact that history was gayer than we have all been led to believe: queer people have existed throughout history but it has been so shoved under the rug with the excuse of “they didn’t have a concept for that back then”. Hmm, maybe they didn’t have the same words as we do now to call Monty bisexual or pansexual, but you can best be assured that such people did indeed exist throughout history. And as such, we get a little taste of queer history and law from this time period.

Speaking of Percy, what a beautiful, lovely soul. The one who has put up with Monty’s nonsense over the years, trying to help him as best he can while his friend is clearly struggling. We get to see how you can love someone, but not agree with everything they do: how you can put up with only so much until you need to draw a line in the sand. And honestly, what a lad he is to be so kind and gentle as he is, bringing out the best in Monty as well as everyone else around him. Though Percy not everything about Percy has to do with Monty; he has his own struggles that he keeps hidden, for not wanting to burden others with them (can you say, relatable?) Not to mention his place in society as a high-born biracial individual. Here we are allowed to see some of the racial relations of the time period, and how they both influence the story as well as history.

Lastly, we have Monty’s younger sister Felicity, whose nose is always stuck in a book, and who I hear is getting her own sequel novel in the future? Sign me up! A scrappy young woman, always with her nose in a book, the sensible offset to Monty’s wild and impulsive ways. She rejects the prescribed course of womanhood that society has set out for her (can you once again say, relatable?), and through her we see just how woman are treated regardless of how they look and dress,  as well as the politics of the time which stifled the interests and careers of many women. Just imagine how much further scientific study and research could have progressed if women had been “allowed” or encouraged to engage in it all along!

So all of this is to say, that while this novel is a bit fluffy and fun and free, that is not to say that there are not deeper and more meaningful themes at times. Do things kind of work out in a miraculous way during certain spots? Perhaps. But I didn’t find this distracting at all. The characters are engaging, and there is just enough action to keep it exciting and interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and may indeed come back to it again in the future when I want to just enjoy something without thinking too hard.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, September 4, 2017

#CBR9 Review #17: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

How many books do you try out from an author before deciding whether you like them or not? This is my third book by Murakami, and before this I just wasn’t 100% sure how I felt about his work. After this one, I’m thinking he might just not be for me. For a few reasons that this book really highlighted for me, and I will of course lay that down later in this review.

But in the meantime: Kafka on the Shore incorporates two stories in alternating chapters, which ultimately tie together. One follows a teenage boy who goes by Kafka, as we runs away from home and ends up living in a library, all while wondering if he may encounter his mother and young sister who left at a young age may be. The other follows an old gentleman named Nakata who had experienced a strange trauma at a young age and now does not think the same way as others do: though he does have strange abilities such as talking to cats, and embarks on a journey wherein he isn’t quite sure of the way or goal, just that he will know when he gets there.

I was really enjoying this novel to begin with, as it’s a bit whimsical and quirky (much like the other Murakami books I have read), and he really has a beautiful and poetic way of speaking. I sometimes get a little annoyed because characters will go off on strange tangents or discussions just to drop pearls of wisdom, and I think, “people don’t talk like this”. It seems unnatural, yet I let these things slide because it really is a pretty way with words. A little before half way through the novel, however, I started to get a little weary and distanced as things went a bit off the rails.

Up until that point, I was really curious by the strange, twisting tale unfolding before me: how would these things connect? What was the greater meaning or concept at play? But as things got stranger and more abstract, I found myself almost feeling like nothing was going to be explained. Now, I understand that not everything always has to be spelled out, and reading between the lines can actually lead to a great reading experience, but there’s a difference between abstract representations/metaphors and just plain absurdity, which I’m afraid I found this novel falling into. That’s not to say I don’t like things that are bizarre and absurd: I thoroughly enjoyed David Wong’s John Dies at the End, but that was almost set up to be bizarre and unexplainable by nature, while Kafka on the Shore seemed to be trying to set up some sense or relation to the real world with an “explanation” or “connection” at the end which didn’t really come into fruition. “It’s hard to explain”, okay but can you at least try? I just needed one more piece of information. Just one. That’s all I ask. I was so confused as to what the point of the whole trudging thing was.

My other major issue with this novel, in relation to the confusion, was how extraneous certain things seemed to be. Things would happen, characters would show up, and time and detail would be spent on them just for it to not really relate in the end, or truly connect in any meaningful way to the overall story. In particular, however, I realized that I have an issue with extraneous aspects of Murakami’s stories when it comes to sexual relations and depictions/descriptions of women (spoilers ahead). There’s a preoccupation with using such a male gaze to describe how women look, always making sure to let us know how attractive the main characters find the women, and how their clothes cling to their breasts, etc. And of course, having a teenage boy as the protagonist of Kafka on the Shore makes it seem reasonable that he’d be full of hormones and interested in how women look, but it happens all the time in other novels too. And was it necessary to have Kafka experience such a Oedipus complex of having sex with the woman who he thought may be his mother? They could have bonded in so many other ways, and this did indeed occur without the sex so I really don’t know why that was needed. Was it necessary to have a young girl who was just helping him give him a handjob, and to have this act brought up time and time again? What was the point of having him dream about raping this girl who he thought of as a sister? (it literally added nothing to the book in my opinion?) Was it necessary for Nakata’s young travelling partner to go off on a side-journey wherein he has sex with a “knockout” of a prostitute, only to repeatedly bring this up again as well? I would think not. Because seriously, I get it. You got off three times with a gorgeous woman and there was really no need to have that in the story as it didn’t have any implication on the plot or the character’s side-quest at all.

All this of course is presented in a gentle and poetic way, and I sometimes get by with reading these things without thinking much of it. But coupled with the confusion and need to be so fantastical while still somehow expecting me to understand with nothing but abstraction leads me to have a bitter taste in my mouth. So many pages and so much meandering about. What was the purpose of it all.

And so, while I was very engaged and curious by the beginning of Kafka on the Shore, ultimately, my curiosity led me nowhere. Nothing made sense to me, and I was left feeling unfulfilled and a little weirded out by how critically some aspects of the novel were looked at (ie; music and it’s way of communicating to people, which truly is a remarkable thing), but not others (ie; sexual relations and the power dynamics therein). Some things I just couldn’t gloss over, and I’m thinking maybe it’s time for me to shelf Murakami as an author for a little while.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

#CBR9 Review #16: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

“The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” – pg 161

Aaaaah, my dramatic boy Oscar Wilde did cause a stir, didn’t he? And it’s kind of ironic that this line was included in a book that then faced so much controversy and was considered immoral, huh? But there are indeed some psychological truths to be found in this novel, even after all this time. I first read this novel a few years ago and enjoyed it then, but upon rereading it now after even just a little bit of time and growth, I came to notice more things than I did upon my first read, and different aspects resonated with me this time. I love it when that happens! And I really do like this book, even if I maybe don’t entirely follow all the rants and theories the characters go off on. It’s a lot. They’re really dramatic. And I live for the drama. In fact, it’s kind of funny to me that all the iterations and adaptations of the character of Dorian Gray that I’ve seen in various things, he’s always so dark and brooding to reflect his evil nature, but that’s not it at all! Sure, he does suspect things, but the whole point is that he looks like a sweet cherub, and is basically just charming everyone and giving them the ol’ razzle dazzle the whole time! I find that all the characters are actually quite theatrical in their manner of being and speaking, but none so much as Dorian and his friend Henry from whom he learns to question and look at the world in a different way. But let’s talk about the actual character and plot, which I’m sure most people are at the very least, vaguely aware of:

The Picture of Dorian Gray centers on the life of a young man named Dorian Gray (quell surprise!) who is a beautiful and somewhat naive young man that draws the charm of everyone he meets. A close friend who is enraptured by Dorian, named Basil, creates a stunning masterpiece of young Dorian, which Dorian grows envious of as it will always stay in it's youthful state, while he must grow old over time. This envious wish is somehow granted, and as Dorian moves through life, he finds himself never growing old, while the painting begins to bear all the tarnished aspects of his soul, as he comes to be friends with a man named Henry, who teaches Dorian to examine the world with different eyes: Dorian's life soon becomes a feast of searching for new and exciting pleasures to the senses, and in fact becoming quite a scandalous young man through the sake of his own selfish experiences. Yet, everyone remains charmed by him, despite the lack of grace he may show in life, or despite all the scandal that surrounds him, which allows Dorian to get away with more and more unsavoury behaviour in his life, all while the only evidence of this marring of his character lays within the portrait that Dorian keeps hidden from any eyes but his own.

At times I find the lengthy descriptions and ramblings of these high-society men to be a little taxing and overdone, but this really plays into the overall sense of the dramatic, aesthetic-loving, sense-aware world that is created in the novel: enjoying beauty for beauty’s sake. And this concept of what is beautiful and what is the soul really comes into play when seeing people’s reactions to Dorian. It’s so important that he be super charming and beautiful and innocent looking, despite the way he lives his life, because it is for this reason that no one believes he could ever do the tasteless and horrible things he does. It really is a reflection of our own society (showing the world one of its shames?) in how you can find some studies that show that people who are considered “beautiful” are often thought to be more intelligent or trustworthy by people who don’t really know the person and are just judging this idea based on looks. How often do we see a pretty smile and think that this must mean the person is fun or nice? I’ve definitely caught myself thinking like that and getting strong first impressions of people that turn out to be totally wrong.

What I love about this book the most though, is just the excessive styling of everything to give it a really grand, melodramatic, but rich feel. Everything from the descriptions (which can be a little much at times, as I said earlier) to everyone’s manner of acting and speaking: these guys like to cause a scene, and I find it so amusing and hilarious, but also really sad in a way when looking at the characters, their lives, and how they search for meaning for themselves. While this intense styling could easily become a soapy parody of itself, there is an examination of values, the human psyche, and the concept of the soul intrinsically mixed in with the plot. What really ties it together is the ending wherein Dorian begins to wonder if he can reverse some of the effects he has made in his life by becoming good again: can we really heal our souls and repair damage caused, or is this all just a selfish pursuit to feel better about the self in the end? Hard to say, hard to say…

Overall, I found myself enjoying this book during its second read, and definitely picked up on more than I did the first time. But what really stuck out to me for some reason is a line right near the end which reads, “The curves of your lips rewrite history.” I mean, it’s kind of out of the blue but man… that line got me feeling some kind of way. And I feel like I’ll remember it for a long time. Just as people have latched onto this novel over time and you will often find references to it, or to the painting that ages instead of the man. It’s a reasonably simple plot that has lasted over the years, and I think this is largely to do with all the examinations and intricacies of human nature that swirl around the seemingly straightforward action.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, July 10, 2017

#CBR9 Review #15: Pop by Gordon Korman

There’s a café in our city with a little “library” that encourages visitors to swap books (leave one, take one), and I’m pretty sure at the moment they have about 4 full sets of all the Twilight series? In any case, on Canada Day, I impulsively did a switcheroo, and got my friend to point at a random book for me to take, which led me to picking up Pop by Gordon Korman. Well, initially it was something like “Vampie Lovers 2” or whatever but I said, I can’t read this if I haven’t read the FIRST one, now can I? But I digress…

Pop is a young adult novel, focused on a teenage boy named Marcus, who has just moved into a new, small town and hopes to join their elite and much-loved high school football team. Of course there is the typical ruffling of feathers and issues really settling in to the new town and being accepted from the team which we come to expect from a lot of YA sports stories, right down to him catching the eye of the gorgeous cheerleader who of course is also the current captain’s ex (but she’s supposed to be different and original from all the other cheerleaders we’ve seen in other stories because she like, actually loves and knows about football). A lot of these hiccups and conflicts work out very predictably, or even just kind of fizzle out without much thought or attention put into them, which was kind of annoying, but ultimately this probably happened as the main plot is focused on Marcus’ relationship with an eccentric older man in town, who happens to be an ex-NFL player known as the “King of Pop”, named Charlie.

Marcus meets Charlie by chance, and Marcus begins training with his new, middle-aged friend in the local park, learning how to do better hits and tackles, which Charlie is a master of. But this older man is a bit eccentric and erratic, which is brushed off as being “quirky” by the local neighbourhood. Yet it is clear that something else is up with Charlie, which we soon learn to be in the form of a degenerative brain disease as a result of too many hits and concussions during his football career. This is a big family secret, yet I couldn’t help but wonder why nobody else in this pretty small town figured it out and put the pieces together based on the way that Charlie acts and interacts with everyone in the novel. It soon becomes Marcus’ big secret as well, as the two get into shenanigans and he tries to not throw this man who doesn’t have all his wits about him under the bus. The novel is clearly trying to tap into some more serious subject matter for the young audience, yet it never quite reaches any emotional depth, even with some twists of fate near the end of the story: everything just kind of shakes out in a reasonably predictable manner. 

Some pros I found with this novel is that it’s straightforward, not overly complicated, and definitely tries to include some serious themes in it. Oh, and I also learned a few things about football, so the author clearly knows a thing or two about that! But the cons come in the fact that it just wasn’t that engaging: all the struggles to push the story forward never felt like there was all that much at stake, and then there’s a drastic mood shift at the end as if to make sure there’s at least some kind of emotional response to grab the reader. I also felt like a lot of the characters were just so static, with no real progression or changes. And I couldn’t help but wonder why no one else in the town suspected that Charlie had some brain damage from his career or that his erratic behavior was not normal and that it stayed so secret? Especially given that he was a bit of a local celebrity?

So, I guess at the end of the day I would say this book is fine, but nothing super special that I will remember for a long time. It might catch the interest of some younger readers who don’t want to get into anything too complicated, but more than anything it’s just coming off as a blip of a read for me that I didn’t really connect with at all. Everything just glided along and didn’t really give me anything new or engaging to work with. Que sera sera.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, June 29, 2017

#CBR9 Review #14: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

A quick little foray into the world at night, when people exist in almost a different realm. After Dark takes place in Tokyo, over the course of one night, and centers around a small selection of people whose activities all end up interconnected somehow. But it’s not quite so simple, as there seems to be some other kind of… I don’t want to say supernatural, but fantastical elements at play as well. It’s a simple and quick read, that comes across as very gentle and thoughtful, yet I can’t say as I was 100% sold on it in it’s entirety.

After Dark features twining stories centered around a number of people, including: a young woman trapped in a deep sleep, the girl’s sister who wants nothing more than to stay away form home all night, an old acquaintance of the two sisters who wants to be more acquainted, three women working at a love hotel, a young Chinese prostitute who is the victim of violence, and the businessman who hurt her. Everyone lives separate lives which all influence the world around them, and we as the viewer see all of these interactions and connections as if viewing everything from a camera in a movie where we may want to get involved but can’t. This is especially apparent when dealing with the young sleeping woman, Eri, and adds to the sense of mystery in the novel. Of course, some of the book’s characters and their stories are more interesting than others, which made me almost want to speed through those who I didn’t enjoy as much. But I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, as I feel that they all added something different to the book which filled in some of the open spaces.

Overall, this novel’s tone is quiet, thoughtful, gentle, and mysterious. Much like the wee, still hours of the night. It is also super quick to read through, and I almost wished there was more as I was really enjoying the mood. But I also kind of wish there was more to it for another reason: there was maybe a little too much left loose in the wind. Ambiguity sometimes works, but I just had so many questions left unanswered, and just needed a little sliver more information. In particular, to do with the somewhat supernatural elements of the novel. What were they about? Why were they happening? Is something at play here? Do they really add anything at all or is it just a quick aside? I just needed one more piece of information, and I think I could have dealt with it a little better.

So, at the end of the day I didn’t mind reading this short little novel at all. It was sweet and cute, though maybe the characters and end-game could have been developed a little more as most of the characters ended up being pretty static (being such a short book there wasn’t that much time but I do think they could have been fleshed out more). That said, it was enjoyable and whimsical, kind of like the other works by Murakami I have read so far. Will it be something that stays with me for a long time? Mmm, probably not, but I don’t regret picking this one up at all.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, June 23, 2017

#CBR9 Review #13: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Alright, this is a conflicting one. I decided to read this book as I saw it listed on a few of those “100 books to read before you die” or “how many of these essential books have you read: most people have only read 8” lists you sometimes see floating about, and now I wonder… why? Why is it on those lists? Is it really considered a classic? Has it really help up over time? Is there not more scrutiny of it now and given all the developments after it’s release? Which, I really didn’t know about at the time, and am now aware of, and is therefore part of why I find this read a bit conflicting when coming to review it. It’s a little bit of that “looking at the art separately” from the creator idea. In this case, it may be more so considering the time period in which it was written and whether or not over time it holds up. I don’t know, I just found that a lot of what was going on in this novel made me want to ask questions or be concerned, yet nothing was really looked at very critically? More just, romanticizing everything, if that makes sense.

As for the contents of the novel, Memoirs of a Geisha follows the life of a well-known (fictional) geisha from Japan named Sayuri as she retells her life’s story. As a young girl, Sayuri (then known as Chiyo) and her sister were essentially taken from her life in a small fishing town to be sent to an okiya in Kyoto’s Gion district, which is the most prominent geisha district in Kyoto. From there, we see her as she struggles to learn to work within the house she now resides, trying to become a geisha, and then work as one as the years go by and the nation of Japan is affected by World War II. Issues that come into play within Sayuri’s life are the politics of becoming a geisha, the competition of other women working within the profession, and garnering the attention of men who can make or break a women’s livelihood in Gion. One of the biggest overarching threads, however, is Sayuri’s affection for a man known as the Chairman, who she develops feelings for over the course of her life. Fundamentally, this book could be viewed as a story of overcoming obstacles and working hard to make a place in life, while also delving into a culture that many deem to be both beautiful and mysterious. And that’s where my first conflict of the mind came into play while reading this book.

Before reading this novel, I was aware of the film that came out in 2005 based off of it winning some Academy Awards for design and such. And… that’s about it. Oh, and I have a tiny little bit of knowledge regarding what it is that geishas are and do. I was not, however, aware of some of the controversy regarding this novel and the contents within it. You may have known this already but for the sake of people like myself who did not, here is the gist:
Arthur Golden’s novel is a fictional novel, yet there is a reality to it, in that he uses real locations and a real culture to try and paint a story that feels real. He obviously did research into different names, places, customs, etc, but how much of this is truly accurate? Enter Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha who was interviewed by Golden for the novel, yet later sued when her identity was not kept anonymous despite having agreed upon this. Having her identity released led her to face serious backlash from the geisha community, which traditionally had a certain code of silence or secrecy to it, to the point that she reportedly received death threats for both dispensing this knowledge, and also for information in the novel being inaccurate and painting geisha as little more than prostitutes. Iwasaki later wrote her own autobiography which reportedly paints a very different picture of the life of geisha in the 20th century. The issue was eventually settled out of court and I am now actually pretty interested to hear what sort of life she depicts.

And so, I wonder what the truth is: is this story factual but now Iwasaki is trying to cover her tracks? Or has Arthur Golden fantasized this “mysterious” culture and tried to pass it off as reality (or at least, a realistic fiction)? It is hard to say. And does it matter if we are aware of this novel being fiction in the first place? Hmmmm, maybe it does if this is one of the most well-known works surrounding the life and culture of geisha’s, which many take to be pretty accurate or as realism.

But setting that controversy aside for a moment, what if we just looked at the novel for what it is: separating the art from the artist, as I said earlier. Because fundamentally, at it’s heart Memoirs of a Geisha is a story about a young woman overcoming a lot of hardships, working hard and being able to make a life for herself, following what she believes to be her destiny. And really, the idea behind it is quite sweet, and the writing is lovely and flowing with a few beautiful instances here and there. Yet at other times I feel like perhaps the author got a little caught up in the poetic nature of writing and ended up creating something that aims to be profound and emotive, but is really just word-salad (on more than one occasion during reading I thought to myself, “I see him trying to say something but this just doesn’t mean anything…”). And while the story does aim to capture the beauty and artistry of geisha life, succeeding in a few parts, there is also something so un-critical in examining this young girl’s life and the things that goes on in it. It’s almost like a preoccupation with romanticizing this “strange” and “other” culture and traditions, to the point where the character we are supposed to follow through this fantastical and beautiful world does little besides look pretty and do what others want from her.

This is not to say that I think Sayuri is a total wet-noodle who doesn’t work hard, but that the women in the novel (aka, the whole center of this world) have little to no agency. Or rather, if they do, they are painted as cruel, old, or haggard. Everything is done and decided by men: the way the women speak, act, how they dress, it’s all very beautiful and poised, but ultimately for the purpose of men to view and grow fond of. It is especially annoying to me having the conversations of the men and the geisha together portrayed, as it so often seems like the geisha are said to be clever but put on this “don’t ask me, I’m just a silly girl who makes silly comments!” cutesy performance. You know Cool Girl in Gone Girl? Not everything is done for men, and yet… it feels like it in this novel. Well, it’s either done for a man or because their fortunes said it was a fortuitous day. The geisha’s whole life and livelihood depends on it, after all! And not to mention, Sayuri’s whole life is essentially based on the fact that she is extremely pretty (but doesn’t know it, of course! Because as soon as you know you look good as a woman, you are nasty and conceited like the character Hatsumono is portrayed in the novel. Didn’t you know this?), and people are constantly telling her what to do and how to do it. Even when Sayuri does decide to take some action in her life and follow her heart, only to find that she may have made a mistake, she is “saved” by a man, and we find that her whole life and career as a geisha has really been a product of a man’s doing. And when women are supportive of one another in the novel, it often feels like in addition to their fondness of one another, there is also some other gain to be made from it. The women in this novel are never really a united front, but super catty with one another and are fighting over the male attention to get ahead. And I get being competitive like that, especially in an industry that relies on male patrons, but can we not ever have a story where women are maybe sad about not getting as far as their friends, but still super happy for their successes? I may not be super happy about where my life is right now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not happy for my friends who are finding their own happiness and living their dreams! We don’t have to fight amongst ourselves all the time: that’s how we are kept down, by not uniting. But at this point I may be reading into this aspect of the novel and it’s relation to how I feel about the world a little too much.

But in any case, the artistry behind geishas truly is remarkable, and I feel like Golden sees this, and that may be why he wanted to create a beautiful picture. The problem is that by so heavily romanticizing everything, it almost feels like in a way he is romanticizing the suffering involved. I couldn’t help but feel gross when the life of these young girls were painted in such an uncritical fashion with simply the narrator’s voice saying “ this was traditional” or “how it was at the time” as if just because that’s the way things were, we shouldn’t question it. It’s almost like a cop-out, having the narrator just unquestioning and supporting everything like this. I mean, Sayuri and her sister were essentially sold, and her sister became a sex slave for a while, all while they were both teenagers. These young apprentices are shown as going around and getting accustomed to the men while the men look them over to grow fond of them while they are but 15 years old or so: they are groomed to catch the attention of grown men when they are still children themselves. Sayuri was even seen catching grown men’s eyes at the young age of 12. And it’s just a part of the story, and I was really creeped out by it. She meets the Chairman when she is 14 years old and decides she wants nothing more than to be this grown man’s mistress. And look, I had crushed on older men and celebrities when I was young, but this book painted that attitude as just so normal and not to be wondered about. There are also parts about people fighting to pay for these young girls’ virginities (which a lot of geishas have since said is not a real thing that happens)? It’s like those creepy men who are just waiting for young girls to “turn 18” so it’s not illegal. But it’s still gross for you to be leering at a teenage girl, you scumbag! Oh, but of course in this novel, it is seen as some sort of big success if you are able to sell your virginity for a high price, which means men desire you more than other girls. (Me, internally sighing: the sexual approval of men is not the end-all-be-all). And when this occurs for Sayuri, it is not shown as a romantic moment but very clinical, which I guess isn’t a bad way to do it, but then after the fact it’s like she’s had some sort of “awakening” because a random man dispassionately shoved his penis inside her, and she suddenly acts like she’s more mature or aware now than those girls who have not yet had this experience. Like… okay. I guess. Kind of an antiquated view of things, which is why I earlier said that maybe this book just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny over time (it was originally published in 1997, so 20 years ago now).

I guess, overall, it’s just really not critical about anything. Or doesn’t really give explanations as to how certain things affect people: for instance, how do the wives of these men feel about them having mistresses? Do they know? If they are cool with it, that’s all good, I support healthy polyamory. But if they aren’t, then that’s another matter. And I just feel like so many things are spoken of so matter-of-fact like “that’s just how it is” with a shrug, but that doesn’t mean we can’t question our social norms and customs and how things go. Are people being hurt by this? Is there a darker side here? Because it sounds like there definitely might be! But then again, what is the truth! This is what I mean by things not holding up over time: these attitudes are not the same as we have now, and even just 20 years ago we thought and behaved differently in regards to a lot of things. And especially when I look at the fact that this novel seems as though it was written to a more Western audience, I can’t help but feel like this romanticizing of the traditions and life as being so beautiful is presented in a way to say “look how they do things”, as if it’s this voyeuristic look at this mysterious “other,” in particular because the subject of geisha’s itself is often considered to be elusive and secretive.

Ultimately, Memoirs of a Geisha is not a bad novel, and the writing is quite lovely. It’s just that I couldn’t help but question everything I was reading and wonder a) What is the truth? And b) Are you really going to just skip by these certain topics and moments as if they are nothing? I mean, maybe I do have a tendency to overthink things, but that’s where my brain was all while reading this novel. I don’t know if I liked it or how to really feel about it. But what I do know is that the artistry of geishas is beautiful, as are some of the streets of the Gion district (which I recently saw during a trip to Japan). Perhaps I need to learn more about this culture and profession now.

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Friday, June 16, 2017

#CBR9 Review #12: Perfume - The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind


Well this was… an experience. And I don’t know that it was a good one? It’s kind of funny, me reading a novel that is so focused on scent and a man with an extraordinary sense of smell, when I myself have an absolutely horrid sense of smell. Honestly, it has to be incredibly strong for me to ever notice any kind of scent (this started happening when I suddenly developed allergic polyps in my nose a few years ago, but anyways). But this book definitely made me worried about the way that I personally smell, now. And whenever I go to play basketball and the gym stinks I am suddenly convinced that the smell is coming from me and I just can’t smell it all the time for some reason… But I digress! Let’s get on with the book.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer follows the life and work of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a young man whose sense of smell is unparalleled. It’s like, a Daredevil-level sense, wherein he can basically see in the dark, smell every individual person and their emotions, know the different components of every object, etc. Honestly, it seems… overwhelming. And Süskind does a good job in painting a picture for what these things may smell like (even for someone with a poor sense of smell, like myself). Sometimes it’s disgusting but it is very visceral. Now, apart from this sense of smell, Grenouille can be characterized as 1) having no smell himself, and 2) as being cold and distant from really understanding or connecting with humans. We may say that part of this has to do with his early life, yet there is something about him even as a baby that just makes people want to get away from him. It’s almost as though there is something inherently evil or inhuman about him, which in fact makes it difficult for people to connect to, or for him to want to really interact with others either. And that, in a way, makes him hard to understand as a character. He just, does what he does because that’s what he wants. And so I had an extremely difficult time connecting to this character, which is unfortunate given that the entire novel revolves around him and his activities. In any case, we follow Grenouille as he learns the art of perfuming, abandons humanity, comes back to it, becomes obsessed with the scent of particular women, and searches to create the most appealing personal aroma to douse himself with in order to make people love and desire him. It is through his skill with scent that he manipulates and looks to gain power over the people he has no clue how to connect with.

From a technical standpoint, the writing in this novel is easy to follow, but stuffed with enough detail that it is engaging and really creates a clear image of what is going on. Süskind has clearly put a lot of effort into researching different arts such as that of tannery and perfuming, which almost verged onto the edge of being a little dry, but never quite falling into the boring side of things. The story, however, I was not a fan of. Just as I said it was hard to connect with Grenouille as a character, it was thereby difficult to connect with his story. It almost seemed overly fantastical with the intent to shock, but missing that certain aspect of the psychology of Grenouille, which would have really gone into the shocking or disturbing realm, I think. It’s almost as if everything was too perfunctory and explanatory, even when emotions were running high for certain characters.

It did get me thinking, however, about how everyone does have their own individual scent which can mark them. Yet this book seemed to place such a high importance on this, as though a person’s scent could influence other’s very strongly. And I mean, maybe we find people more attractive if they smell nice or want to not be so close to them when they smell bad, but even the subtleties of individual’s scents were highlighted here which kept making me… I don’t want to say “paranoid” while reading this, but it make me a little uncomfortable wondering about that, or how my life has been affected by how I smell? I don’t know, but it was a weird feeling.

In any case, I just didn’t find this book to be engaging overall, whether this be because of the perfunctory tone, or the distant nature of the main character which made it hard to really get into. I mean, we are supposed to be following this character and at least be interested and invested in what happens to him, but I didn’t find him engaging at all. And I think even starting off the bat with there being something wrong and inhuman about him at the beginning as a baby took away from even wanting to connect with or become invested in Grenouille as a character: if he has no humanity and is just inherently evil, then all discussion of his place within the society he roams and any relation to his from the reader is basically a futile endeavor. At least, that’s how I felt right from the beginning, and was never really able to overcome.


P.S: I now find out that Perfume is also a movie, starring Ben Whishaw, who honestly, I think could bring some kind of charisma to the character (then again, I am biased because I love him). Yet I’m confused as to how it would be possible to convey smells and the power of scents through the medium of film in an effective way? At least in novel form the description can really touch on human memories of scent and the brain can conjure these things up. I just don’t know. I probably won’t bother watching it in any case, given my distaste for the story after reading it.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]