Friday, May 23, 2014

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (20 of 166)

One Sentence Summary: The Moonstone, a mysterious gem of India, supposed cursed, brings mayhem, theft, and death to the lives of those who possess it.

“We had our breakfasts--whatever happens in a house, robbery or murder, it doesn't matter, you must have your breakfast.”
This is the first Wilkie Collins book that I have read and as I was able to get through it and have never been able to get through a Dickens tome (with the exception of A Christmas Carol, which is decidedly un-tome-like) , it looks as if Collins has already pulled ahead in my affections for authors of their time. Collins seems underappreciated to me and I have to wonder if it is because he was operating in the shadow of his friend and contemporary, Dickens. Granted, my impressions of him have been swayed by a reading of Dan Simmons' fictional Drood. What is true from that thoroughly unimpressive book is Collins' opium dependence, which comes across in an alarmingly close and telling manner in The Moonstone. At one point, a character with a dark history and an issue with the nefarious drug, gives an extensive account of the effects. They are so intimate and accurate, you can't help but feel a little uncomfortable, considering the author's history.

The Moonstone is a classic detective story- a whodunnit of the old tradition. Agatha Christie probably cut her reading teeth on it. Daphne DuMaurier must have curled up in a bay window, rain pelting against the outside, and devoured this tale of robbery, blackmail, and mayhem. The mark of a great mystery, in my mind, is when it pushes the reader to feverishly try and solve it before the characters get around to the task. I had a running list of ten possibilities, each shifting up or down the list and morphing as the pages turned. There were at least two shock-worthy moments where the story took completely unexpected turns. I can't imagine how this must have driven readers mad when this was first published in serialized form. So many miniature cliff-hangers! How did they bear the wait between editions? 

Collins's use of unreliable first-person narrators throughout kept you guessing what was truth, what impression, and what was outright untruth. While I have great praise for nearly all of them, I am especially obsessed with Miss Clack. She was absolutely hilarious. Why is she forgotten when we list the great comic moments of canonized literature? I was sad when her part of the narrative ended, but its briefness gave a great roundness to an otherwise very straightforward plot.

On the negative side, but keeping in mind the time when it was written, there is the classic Oriental fetish of the Victorians at play here. I mean, a cursed Indian stone- undercover Brahmin traveling jugglers- mystical Hindu ceremonies? Yeah, okay. I get it. The colonies are the heart of darkness. The Temple of Doom is now. But still, that was the stuff of romps in the day. It is telling and intriguing to look at the culture through the prism of its popular media. 

I am going to be passing this along to my mother and grandmother, fans of Jane Eyre and crime stories, respectively. Bordering on gothic and thoroughly intriguing and delightful with its touch of the tragic and mystical, it's a great read. If you can't get through Dickens, maybe you should hang out with one of his best friends. If the popularity isn't there, the technique and imagination certainly meet, if not surpass those of the famous champion of the poor.

Shelf Status: Passing along
If you liked The Moonstone, you may like: Rebecca, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Turning of the Screw

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin (19 of 166)

One Sentence Summary: A persuasive argument for biochemist Luca Turin's theories regarding the mysterious scent molecule.

"The voice of Nombre Noir was that of a child older than its years, at once fresh, husky, modulated and faintly capricious. There was a knowing naivety about it which made me think of Colette's writing style in her Claudine books. It brought to mind a purple ink to write love letters with, and that wonderful French word farouche, which can mean either shy or fierce or a bit of both. I immediately bought a very expensive half-ounce in a little square black bottle." 
I am thoroughly intimidated by anything more than cursory approaches to the sciences. For the most part a decent student in high school, I hung on by the skin of teeth in science classes year after depressing year. It is not that I do not appreciate science; don't get me wrong. I actually love it. I experience the same strange pull to it that I do to all fields with any mystery left to them. It is just that curriculum everywhere manage to squeeze all of the goodness out of a thing and replace it with the knee-knocking fear of senseless equation running. Equations are beautiful things, but not when they have stripped down to their use on standardized testing. You catch my drift. I think that it must be nearly impossible to separate a love of this world from a love of science. High school achieved it. Remarkable.

Something that I do have a decent understanding of is perfume. It may a seem a superfluous sort of interest, a bourgeoisie fascination, but I would argue that belief to come from a root of ignorance. Scent is integral to our relationships, to each other, to ourselves, and to our environment. It is the sense most strongly linked with memory and association. And yet, when it comes to finding the sensory calling card that you will leave most subtly and inexorably on those you meet, we deem the pursuit vanity. Why am I into perfume? Because it is complicated and romantic and different for every person out there, because it is full of beautiful language both technical (fougere, aldehydic, chypre) and descriptive (blousy, biting, sensual, woody), and because the legacy of scent is so strong.

Taking into consideration the above two paragraphs, one begins to understand how I managed to finish a book that, by its very nature, gave me test-taking anxiety. Luca Turin writes on his topic with so much passion and excitement that you cannot help but feel that scent molecules are the most important thing to happen to science since the microscope. Even as I labored through pages of complicated (for me) formulas, it always became worth it for me upon reaching another milestone where the shop talk turned back to perfume. Turin managed to make his book about more than his theory (which is fascinating, by the way)- he managed to make it a scientist's love letter to an arcane and under-appreciated art form. Better than that, he wrote with all of the sass of a self-assured Frenchman. Like a complete bad ass, he shrugs off his nay-sayers by casually reminding that he has used his theory of scent to generate synthetic molecules for Flexitrol for several years now. Excuse me, but:

I only wish I had a better grasp on the technical aspect of this little treatise on scent.

I would like to take a Chemistry 101 class and then return to this text to see what else I can take away from it. But Luca Turin sounds like someone I want to take up over the perfume counter in some back-alley Parisian boutique and talk Coty, Chanel, and everything in between, up, down, and diagonal. 

Shelf Status: Keeping for now. Perfume books are few and far between.