Saturday, April 21, 2007

A trip to the vault

Let's take a little trip into the vault and look at two books the Bookbabe found extremely captivating. Even better, these books are actually complimentary of each other in an odd sort of way.

First up is "Perfume" by Patrick Suskind. This little gem has been around for a while and the Bookbabe first learned about it when she worked at the used book store long ago. A customer had recommended Suskind, saying it was rare to find his works, the author being German and not very well-known here in the United States, etc. He went on to tell me that of the works that had been translated, I would be wise to keep my eyes open for "Perfume", by far Suskind's best. It took a while to track it down (over a year, if I recall), but it was worth it.

The story goes like this: a child is born with a unique sense of smell, a sort of human bloodhound. However, this same child, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, has no odor of his own, a condition that seems to turn the human race against him. His mother is disgusted by him and his wet nurse finds her job incredibly difficult, as she claims that he does not smell right - he has no "baby" smell. He is brought up as a thing rather than a human. Grenouille survives his childhood and apprentices himself to a perfumer, learning everything there is to know about the art of creating perfume. While his skill brings great fame and fortune to his mentor, Grenouille has bigger plans. Plans that will involve murder.

More than anything, Grenouille wants to be loved and adored, and he knows this is impossible due to his lack of odor. His plan is to "distill" the most pleasing of human odors and create a unique perfume, one that will draw in every human within a hundred-yard radius. The only drawback to the plan is that it will require the deaths of several people, as that is the only way to "distill" the essence he is searching for. Grenouille is certainly not above killing; his childhood has not instilled a conscience in him.

"Perfume" has a slow, subtle increase of dread and horror, much the way a good scent wiggles its way into your brain. It's not necessarily what I would call action-packed, so if you prefer that sort of thriller, this might not be to your liking. But it's a book that I often recommend and that I've never forgotten.

The second book is a non-fiction work about scent and how it is registered in the body. I know, sounds boring, doesn't it? But in Chandler Burr's "The Emperor of Scent", the entire process is thoroughly examined and turned on its head by one Luca Turin. Turin is a scientist who is proposing a theory on how our sense of smell works, one that is at odds with everything that has previously been written. The saga of his attempts to publish said theory are funny and frustrating at the same time; his peers want nothing to do with him and his "outrageous" ideas. Turin then goes to the perfume industry with his findings in hopes that they will listen to him, since he will be sharing something that should make them quite a bit of money. That industry turns out to be just plain confusing, both for Turin and for us.

The strength is this book is not only Burr's writing but also in the character of Turin himself. This is no stodgy scientist - think more absent-minded professor with the enthusiasm of a child. Turin is fascinating and I kept thinking how much I'd love to meet him, even if I wasn't sure I'd understand a word he said! And this work, as I said earlier, makes a great companion piece to the fictional "Perfume".

Just a little suggestion from the vault, dear reader.

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