S is for Süskind

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I actually learned how to create an umlaut for this review. I’ll probably forget as soon as I’ve finished, but there you go, at least I made the effort.
Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, has been around for a quarter of a century in published form. Although set in historical France, it was originally written in German, but handily translated.
The title gives a fairly accurate summary of the plot, but the book is so much more than that. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into a world of poverty and dirt, as his mother shrugs him off like she did the rest of his siblings. Unlike her previous children, Jean-Baptiste refuses to give up, and his newborn cries condemn his neglectful mother to the guillotine. This happens in the first six pages, which might give you an idea of how fast paced the novel is. From his ill fated mother through to the rest of the masters he has throughout the book, Jean-Baptiste is the Angel of Death, as all who take him in suffer a lonely or unwanted death.
Jean-Baptiste has the greatest nose in the world. He can pick out people from miles away, and unravel scents as though unwinding a scarf. Very early on, he begins to collect smells as other people collect books, gathering them together in order to make the perfect smell. While on his quest, he realises that he does not smell. He can tell what a customer has had for lunch a week earlier, but he cannot smell. This might seem to be a distinct advantage to most readers – no more money spent on deodorants or perfume in an effort to smell acceptable at all times. However, for Grenouille, it proves to be a burden as without smell he is invisible in a crowd. Worse than that, he is abhorrent face to face – people avoid him without knowing why. Grenouille manages to create his own scent, and finds more success from then on. Perhaps this is because he gains confidence due to the fact that he has a smell, rather than his application of a fake smell. Either way, he finds himself more socially accepted.
Süskind’s idea that a person’s unique smell is representative of their soul is quite interesting. I even found myself sniffing the inside of my elbows (the place where the scent comes out strongest, apparently) in an attempt to smell me. It didn’t work, and it was a good job I was at home and not out in public, quite frankly. It seems to make sense, though – everyone does have a certain smell, no matter what perfumes they use. It’s not about sweat or smelly feet, but deeper than that. Maybe what you eat or drink makes a difference. Perhaps happy people smell nicer, and so are happy as a result.
As far as his writing goes, Süskind’s prose is impressive. For a fairly heavy subject matter, the book dances along through Grenouille’s childhood and teenage years with a very light touch. He is succinct and articulate, with a pleasing tone of voice which never veers towards being patronising or boring.
His characters are impressive too – Grenouille is a murderer but he is made into a sympathetic figure because he is painted as lonely, in search of love but with the knowledge that he is too strange to be loved. He is described as a pet, a tick, a cuckoo in the nest – very rarely as human.
When Grenouille begins murdering properly, the narrator shifts to someone else, who reports on the killings. This is very clever as the reader is obviously aware that it’s Grenouille, but no-one else is. We are therefore in the position of knowing the mystery and being able to view it from the bewildered townspeople’s perspective.
I was familiar with the story as I saw the 2006 film of the same name. The story is fairly faithfully followed in the film, although understandably conversations and characters are jettisoned in favour of pacing. One of the main differences for me, though, was that Grenouille is unattractive in the book, with scars and carbuncles from slave labour and diseases adorning his face and body. In the film, he’s played by Ben Whishaw, who is not unattractive, in my opinion. I suppose that’s the difference between film and book – as his confidence grew, so did his social success. Perhaps he was not ugly, but felt so until he acquired new clothes and a scent of his own.
I’d recommend Perfume to people who enjoy an historical novel that’s a bit different. Don’t be put off if you’ve seen the film – I found the language to be easy to read and the description was kept to a minimum, allowing the reader to imagine items for themselves.
Next week – Scarlet Thomas’ Popco. It’s so pretty – I’m looking forward to reading it!
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Double Heaven

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My friend and I decided it’d be a brilliant idea to go into the McDonald’s on Oxford Street on Hallowe’en Saturday afternoon. 

Better than that, I ordered a double Quarter Pounder regular meal, which I was advised takes a couple of minutes longer, which is well worth the wait!

I huddled in the express lane, trying to get out of the way of the frazzled Saturday shoppers. It was pretty hard, to be honest. 

After two minutes, the employees at the Express window gave me an update, with an apology – it’ll be a couple more minutes. No problem, said I. After another couple of minutes, the team leader gave me an update, with an apology – it’ll be a couple more minutes. No problem, said I. 
After another couple of minutes, the manager came over to apologise and to reassure me that it was on the way. Again, no problem, said I – they were clearly busy and doing their best to serve everyone, which is tricky when some of the customers are morons. 
Overheard: 
McDs (to the waiting lady at he front of the queue): Chicken nuggets and fries?
Lady (dismissively): No, I ordered Chicken nuggets and chips.
McDs: Yep, that’s chicken nuggets and fries.

A minute later, I got a large meal and a complimentary apple pie – too much for me to eat, although I had a good ol’ go, but appreciated nonetheless. 

Well done McDonald’s!

Anyone else got good/bad stories on McDs?


Converse ain't so cool

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I first spotted these in September, while idly browsing the American Converse site.


Pretty, right? Unfortunately, they didn’t have them in stock, so I e-mailed them. With international shipping, it usually works out good value for money – products are quite often not available in the UK, they’re usually cheaper and the VAT charged on entry means it still costs less than buying it in the UK would. This is definitely true of Benefit cosmetics, and some products on Amazon. Of course, you’ll have to be careful of US only products, such as the Kindle (which I really want) and perishables such as food. 

Anyway, the e-mail came back within a couple of days, and was disappointingly machine generated:

ConverseOne

 to me

 1 Sep
Hello,

If your size is not listed then it means that we are unfortunately out of stock in that size. It is possible that we will get additional inventory at a later date, but we do not have that specific information at this time.

Please utilize the retailer locator feature in the help and info section at www.converse.com to see if there is a retailer in your area who may have this shoe available. Please note that we do not have access to retailer inventory so you will need to contact them directly for additional assistance with this item.

If we can assist you further, please do not hesitate to contact us.


Regards,


Jessica
Customer Service

Of course, they’re not available in the UK. Boo.

I kept checking back, and hit the jackpot at the end of October – they had my size! Unfortunately, I got an error message when I tried to enter my credit card number. I tried with three different cards, all with the correct details, with this error message appearing each time:

“We are unable to process your order. Your credit card information isn’t matching up”

I dutifully e-mailed Converse in an attempt to get a solution before they ran out again:

Thank you for your interest in Converse!

We are sorry to hear that you are experiencing difficulties in placing your order. Please remember that when you place your order and enter your billing address it must be typed in exactly how your credit card company has on record for you.

If you are still having trouble placing your order, please give us a call at (888)792-3307 or 1-615-367-7171 and we will be happy to assist you in placing an order via phone. We are available to assist you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and most Holidays!

If you have further questions please let us know. Thank you and have a great day!

Thank you,.

Jessica
Converse.com


Again, I got a disappointingly manufactured message. 
I tried again, in different browsers, but with the same result. I e-mailed Converse again, and strangely, got Jessica again.

Hello, 

Thanks for the prompt reply. 

My credit card details matched my address, my name and everything else needed to complete the transaction. 
I just attempted to place the order on a PC (instead of my Mac at home) and the cons I want are no longer available. 

I am extremely disappointed with this, as I have waited months for them to come back in stock in my size, and have been trying to buy them for a couple of days. Not only that, but I was able to place them in my basket, only to be advised that they are unavailable.

I have attached the screenshot of the message in case it helps. 

Any advice or help you can give would be much appreciated – all I want to do is order the aforementioned cons in a UK size 6 – shouldn’t be too hard!

Thanks for your time, 
Suze

Jessica replied:

Hi Suze,


If you are still having trouble placing your order, please give us a call at (888)792-3307 or 1-615-367-7171 and we will be happy to assist you in placing an order via phone. We are available to assist you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and most Holidays!

If you have further questions please let us know. Thank you and have a great day!

Thank you,.

Jessica
Converse.com


After figuring out that I can’t actually call internationally on my mobile, I thought I’d ask for Jessica to call
me, after all, they have a clear international shipping policy and a big hearted brand reputation to protect. Surely they could give me a call, or even look into the issue?

Hi Jessica,


Thanks for your e-mail. I would love to phone you about this, but neither my work phone or mobile are set up for international calling. 

I’ve attached two screenshots to show you the error message – please note, in the second one I deleted my security code after I submitted. You never know who’s looking, right?

Feel free to call me – I’d like to get this issue sorted out because I love the shoes and you can’t get them in the UK! If there’s something obvious that you can see is a problem, please let me know. I’ve now tried this on about four different browsers, and I know that the information is correct.

My mobile number’s in my signature.

Thanks, 
Suze

Apparently not – note the lack of ‘Have a super swell day!!!!!!’ at the end of this…..
Hello,

Regretfully, we are unable to contact you via  phone.  You must be able to place your order online or with us via phone.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you.


Thank you,.

Jessica
Converse.com

 There endeth my Converse dealings. I cannot place the order online as their website has a bug or bugs in it. I work in a web team, so I’m not exactly unfamiliar with corporate websites. I cannot call them, because 
my phones are not set up for international calling. 

We appear to have reached an impasse, dearest Converse. I was looking forward to adding to my decent collection with the dazzlingly pretty multi uppers, but it seems that it is not to be. 

Anyone else have issues with the Converse site, international or not? 

R is for Rivas

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Vermeer’s Milkmaid is a collection of short stories by Galician writer, Manuel Rivas. I had to wikipedia Galicia because, shamefacedly, I didn’t know where it was. To show off my new knowledge and enlighten those others who don’t know, it’s in Spain. North West Spain, to be exact, and according to the Great Encyclopaedia, an historical autonomous community.
Although Rivas writes in Spanish and Galician, the book I read had been translated into English, which was pretty handy. I talked about translation back in August, and I still believe that translator’s a hard job. You have to retain not only the meaning, but the style and inflection of each sentence. No pressure, then.
I’d like to be able to read Galician, so I can make a proper observation about the translation of the stories. In this absence, I’ll just say that Rivas’ writing came across as succinct but evocative, in all sixteen stories. These were indeed, short, as the book itself struggled to reach one hundred and twenty pages.
They all represented what I would call, good short stories. There was a clear plot and all of the relevant details were revealed about characters, locations, events, with just enough guess work to make them mysterious. The majority of them centred around male characters, searching for something from a long lost love to their bodies, which they have been estranged from. Most of the stories had an element of fantasy in them, from the tarot card reader who refuses to read after drawing a bad omen card, to the three page story following a conversation about murder amongst inanimate objects, from the Television to the Ashtray to the Darkness itself.
Another mark of a good short story, or collection of, is how they affect you. I read A Perfect Day for Bananafish, by J.D. Salinger, in a creative writing class years ago, and I still think about it. Due to their nature, they usually revolve around a short, sharp event in someone’s life. In Rivas’ collection, an old man recounts the time where he got so frustrated with his lover’s yappy dog that he snuck back to her house at night and murdered it by ramming a steel spike down its throat. She knew, of course, and he never saw her again.
The stories are haunting, full of dusty images of the Civil War and sax players. They come and go in a flash, but promise to remain in my imagination for a long time to come.
I’d recommend these to people who enjoy short stories with a darker, deeper side – ones which may need careful re-reading to see all of the layers. It might help to know where Galicia is as well. 

Q is for Quinn

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Rory and Bruno live in the Venetian Vista gated community, in a luxurious house. They’ve spent the best part of twenty years together, since college. The Good Neighbor begins when the empty house next door gets occupants. In a coincidence (or not, as the writer wrote it that way, I suppose) the neighbours turn out to know them from college. Meg and Austin are a Baptist family with two sons – Noah and Josh. Within a few minutes, the kids have shown the adults up in the tolerance stakes, as they don’t bat an eyelid over Rory and Bruno’s obviously intimate relationship.
Predictably, Rory and Austin become close as they are the designated ‘house husbands’, cooped in over a humid autumn, with only their pools and pills for company. I was convinced that the story would end with Rory and Austin moving in together, and Meg and Bruno setting up house, as a lot is made of Bruno’s previous marriage to a woman. Although I won’t give the ending away, I will say that this doesn’t happen.
It’s quite a short book, which was handy as I’m still catching up from Pessl, but it does manage to fit a lot in. Quinn obviously enjoys writing, as it was easy to read and easy to distinguish between character voices, for the most part. The parallels between the heterosexual and homosexual couple are apparent throughout – the wage earner holds the power, both stay at home partners feel undermined, emasculated at times. Although it felt a bit forced, it was interesting that sex, as in gender, was not important.
Despite being interesting, I also felt that the concept of gay fiction is a bit strange. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but society today is comfortable with gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transsexual relationships in a way that it wasn’t twenty years ago. My opinion is that, if it’s not that big a deal, why have a section of literature dedicated to how it’s not that different to heterosexual relationships? I suppose there are people who do not agree with lifestyles away from their norm (i.e., married at 18, 2.4 children etc) but I’d like to think that they wouldn’t read this, in which case, Quinn is preaching to the choir.
There’re quite a few references to the fact that Rory is Catholic, and the other couple are Baptist. There’s an irritating conversation where Meg lectures Rory on what Christians believe, where Rory internally comments that Catholics are Christians. I found this irritating because if you believed that your faith was the correct one, a gentle correction is going to enlighten the speaker and defend your position. Instead, he grumbles about it to himself, which is surely not the Christian thing to do. It feels a little bit like the author’s waving a sign around which reads “See!! Gay people are just like ordinary people!!”.
On the other hand, there are very few ‘mainstream’ novels that I am aware of which feature a gay couple as main characters. If I was gay, I’d like that there were novels (Jay Quinn has written a dozen of these) which concerned my lifestyle, from walking the dog to having sex. I’m no prude, but the intimate moments were unexpectedly graphic. It was obvious that there may be ‘scenes of a sexual nature’, simply because another of Quinn’s books that I picked up in the library came under the ‘gay erotic fiction’ label.
Aside from this, much of the novel revolves around Austin’s voyeurism of Rory and Bruno, as he watches them in their back garden. Again, perhaps I’m being naïve but I didn’t really see why it was necessary to strip each other in the pool, in full view of everyone.  Intimacy isn’t displayed with half drowned blow jobs, in my opinion.
I know I’m in danger of sounding slightly Daily Mail, and I am finding it hard to articulate what I thought of this book without coming across as homophobic or falsely tolerant. I enjoyed the writing, and the characters were largely rendered successfully. However, no-one got away with occasional broad strokes about their personalities, from their sexual preferences to their alcohol tolerance.
To summarise, the main themes of the book – love, loyalty and independence – could all easily have been covered with any combination of couples, and often is. It was refreshing to see the main couple being gay, but in 2009, I felt guilty for being surprised. Although there were irritating affectations (such as Bruno telling Meg that nine year old Josh is gay, as ‘they’ can spot ‘em young) there were incidences of charming writing, which kept me reading. 

P is for Pessl

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 For P I read Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I’m disappointed in myself for this one, because I started reading it early and it still took me two weeks to read. Never fear, dear readers, I’ll catch up with the Challenge. Sometimes, though, life gets in the way, and this month has been an exceptionally busy one.
Despite this, I read for about the time I would normally read for – probably longer, as I had a couple of train journeys as well. It’s not that long, but it’s quite densely written and you can’t afford to skim sentences, as you’ll find yourself wandering around in the text, lost amongst the characters’ conversation.
Marisha Pessl (thank you, wikipedia)  was born in the late 1970s, and after her parents split the family moved to North Carolina. Apparently she had an intellectually stimulating upbringing, with her mother reading aloud to her children before bed. This is perhaps the inspiration for Special Topics in Calamity Physics, where Blue van Meer is an intellectually stimulated teenager who moves around America with her professor father. Write about what you know, I guess.
The writing, although awkward in places, does it’s best to engage the reader with a fairly unwieldy plotline. Pessl clearly loves language, and playing with sentences. She frequently anthropomorphises inanimate objects, pets, even emotions, which is usually amusing, although it got wearing after a little while. The other aspect I found interesting was her ability to make the reader react – she describes facial expressions so well that I found myself copying the character’s, using her description.
Blue is an extremely intelligent sixteen year old girl, brought up by her father after the apparent suicide of her mother, when she was very young. Her thoughts, and indeed, the book’s prose, are littered with pop culture and literary references from all eras and areas – high and low brow. It reminded me a little of Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, that non fiction Philosophy textbook masquerading as an endearing (though slightly creepy) relationship story. It was quite fun to recognise references, although usually Blue explained them anyway, so don’t be daunted by this. The made up references were more confusing – writings by van Meer featured heavily, along with websites that I am more than half-tempted to look up, just to see what’s there. The other bonus with having books referenced is that you collect other books on your to read list.  The snag is when there are books you want to read which aren’t real. I just spend ten minutes looking for the Charles Manson biography “Blackbird singing in the dead of night”, only to find that it’s fabricated. I suppose that’s the mark of a good writer, or one of them, at least.
The plot revolves around Blue’s senior year at a new high school, where she meets film teacher Hannah Schneider and an elite group of seniors – the Bluebloods. They’ve all been picked by Hannah to socialise with her in a faux study group. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – a group of teenagers construct a secret society with dire consequences. Except, there weren’t, really. Although you find out at the beginning of the book that Hannah Schneider commits suicide, it’s not really until the end hundred and fifty pages that the story comes out about it. I think the book suffers from a stilted pace, as if Pessl didn’t employ an editor, but wrote everything she wanted to write before realising that nothing much had happened for three hundred pages and she needed to wrap it up.  It also reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things,  where Something Bad is going to happen for three hundred pages, and when it finally does, I’d lost interest in the Terrible Thing.
I was a bit bewildered by the third act, to be honest. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but there are a number of plot twists in the last hundred pages which left me reeling with information. Other events in the story click into place as being finally relevant, but by that time I’d either forgotten where they’d been mentioned or they felt shoehorned in at the last minute. In this way, it’s a good book to re-read, and I think it would be great for a book club, as there are so many different aspects that a good discussion would be interesting.
In the same way that Blue’s life echoes Pessl’s, the book imitates itself. The film L’Aventura features heavily, which, we are told, revolves around a missing woman who is never found. A quick imdb search reveals that this too, is a fabrication of Pessl’s. However, although Hannah does not disappear, the book is not wrapped up and there is no pertinent ending. Some people may find this frustrating, which is understandable, but I enjoyed the confidence inherent in finishing a book without closure. The book also begins with Blue introducing herself (although you don’t know her name until a fair amount of pages in) and explaining that she’s writing a journal for her grandkids. This format does not continue all the way through, but there are some nice touches, such as the ‘hand-drawn’ visual aids which are sprinkled through the chapters.
I’d be interested in reading this book again as I’m sure there are loads of things  I missed. It’s touted as the next The Time Traveler’s Wife, and my copy even has a quote from Niffenegger about how she couldn’t put it down. Sadly, I don’t think it’s going to enjoy that level of popularity, but it’s still worth reading if you fancy something a little more challenging and thought-provoking.