Saturday, 28 April 2012

Helen Keller In Love (Rosie Sultan)

--The blurb--
"Helen Keller has long been a towering figure in the pantheon of world heroines. Yet [...] Rosie Sultan’s debut novel imagines a part of Keller’s life she rarely spoke of or wrote about: the man she once loved. When Helen is in her thirties and Annie Sullivan is diagnosed with tuberculosis, a young man steps in as a private secretary. Peter Fagan opens a new world to Helen, and their sensual interactions—signing and lip-reading with hands and fingers—quickly set in motion a liberating, passionate, and clandestine affair. It’s not long before Helen’s secret is discovered and met with stern disapproval from her family and Annie. As pressure mounts, the lovers plot to elope, and Helen is caught between the expectations of the people who love her and her most intimate desires."

--The review--
It is easy to see what inspires generations of people about Helen Keller: the stoicism, grace, modesty and talent that pervades her writing would be nothing short of remarkable even in someone 'ordinary', let alone in someone living with Keller's disabilities today - and even more so given the limitations in treating someone who was blind and deaf during Keller's lifetime. But naturally this places expectations on someone to say that they are coping well, and so to seize upon a time in Keller's life where she more ostensibly did not cope well is arguably a bold move. But this is what Sultan does in her first novel, Helen Keller In Love, by investigating a passionate love affair that took place between Keller and her private secretary which sadly did not come to the fruition that he allegedly promised her.

The two aspects of this work - history and fiction - are equally intriguing. Historically, Helen Keller In Love is clearly the result of hours and months (if not years) of diligent research by the author. With documentary evidence that this affair occurred, it brings new focus and perspective to Helen Keller's life. For a woman who was at pains to emphasise just how normal her life was, we are suddenly given part of her life which was not 'normal', and brings us to wonder whether it ever could have been. In addition, by highlighting this element of Keller's life, Sultan makes us reconsider the importance of other peripheral figures in history; the chances are that some of them had more impact than we may have previously realised.

The fictional factor is just as crucial, however. Even though there is some documentary evidence of the affair between Keller and Fagan, the author is honest in her endnotes about the fact that some other key documents have since been lost or destroyed. As with all historical writing, this has a significant effect on the end product - and in terms of historical fiction, it affects the degree to which the author is able and willing to put their own stamp on the basic storyline. Sultan's storytelling is believeable, intense and moving, allowing us to feel Helen's joy, pain and frustration across the story's entire trajectory. This also raises many interesting questions for the reader and makes them wonder how Fagan's side of the story would read.

Nevertheless, the result is an unputdownable debut which establishes Rosie Sultan as a blazing new figure on the historical fiction scene (which I'm sure the good people at Viking, who sent me this complimentary copy, will be glad to hear). This romantic yet serious novel, which is indulgent in some places yet minimalist in others, is suitable for any woman who has ever been in love (or lust) - it probably won't appeal much to men due to its highly romantic nature, but that shouldn't inhibit sales too much. Out this week, it comes highly recommended with the approach of summer. 

Monday, 16 April 2012

Midnight in Peking (Paul French)

--The blurb--
"January, 1937: Peking is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, lavish cocktail bars and opium dens, warlords and corruption, rumours and superstition – and the clock is ticking down on all of it. In the exclusive Legation Quarter, the foreign residents wait nervously for the axe to fall.  Japanese troops have already occupied Manchuria and are poised to advance south.  Word has it that Chiang Kai-shek and his shaky government, long since moved to Nanking, are ready to cut a deal with Tokyo and leave Peking to its fate. Each day brings a ratcheting up of tension for Chinese and foreigners alike inside the ancient city walls.  On one of those walls, not far from the nefarious Badlands, is a massive watchtower – haunted, so the locals believe, by fox spirits that prey upon innocent mortals. Then one bitterly cold night, the body of an innocent mortal is dumped there.  It belongs to Pamela Werner, the daughter of a former British consul to China, and when the details of her death become known, people find it hard to credit that any human could treat another in such a fashion.  Even as the Japanese noose on the city tightens, the killing of Pamela transfixes Peking. Seventy-five years after these events, Paul French finally gives the case the resolution it was denied at the time."  

--The review--
Despite not being a fan of crime fiction usually, when I think back on it my interest in popular culture is littered with crime references and the idea of bringing the bad guys to justice: over the years I have been a fan, variously, of shows such as Lewis, Watchdog, and Motorway Cops, as well as books by Ruth Rendell, Susan Swan, Marisha Pessl, and Grahame Greene. 

However (and this is a big however), I cannot stand the sight of blood. This includes the presence of blood in shows where it is obviously fake, like in Casualty. Another thing I can't abide is graphic descriptions of injury. These two things together often preclude me from exploring much of the crime genre in books and on television. Thankfully, though, I can now add Paul French's work to the safe list thanks to Midnight In Peking, which is due for UK paperback release on May 31st 2012.

So what made me, like the mug that I am, say yes to this when offered it by Penguin's lovely PR people? The main draw for me was the historical aspect: knowing shamefully little about history in general despite studying the subject until I was 18 (thanks, British education system!) means that I am now as keen to get my mitts on history books as possible while I work out what I am interested in more precisely. In spite of being a crime novel, Paul French did not disappoint with his colourful yet well-researched depiction of pre-Communist China. Concise yet engaging, his rendition of this time period instantly made me want to find out more.

This is not the only thing that Midnight In Peking has going for it: the author keeps a tight rein on the information, revealing it little by little in a very controlled fashion, while at the same time treating the reader to sumptuous (yet still concise) descriptions of the cityscape. As we read, we genuinely want to know of the fate of the characters and wish for justice to be finally brought to victim Pamela Werner, whose family incredibly never received justice during their lifetime. It is at times frustrating and at other times satisfying to know the outcome. French keeps the graphic descriptions of Pamela's injuries to a minimum and structures the story so that it is easy enough to skip them for those of us who are not that way inclined.

As a whole, then, Chris French has done a great service to us all, not only in drawing attention to this aspect of China's history but also in terms of bringing some form of peace to a family that never previously was able to attain it for their case. Although at times a little more dialogue is wished for, this is a small flaw in an otherwise great historical novel.

Other books by Paul French
North Korea The Paranoid Peninsula: A Troubled History (2005)
Carl Crow: A Tough Old China Hand - The Life, Times and Adventures of an American in Shanghai (2006)
Through the Looking Glass: China Foreign Journalists from Opium War to Mao (2009)
The Old Shanghai A-Z (2010)

Paul French is also the author of blog China Rhyming.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Glow (Jessica Maria Tuccelli)

--The blurb--
"In the autumn of 1941, Amelia J. McGee, a young woman of Cherokee and Scotch-Irish descent, and an outspoken pamphleteer for the NAACP, hastily sends her daughter, Ella, alone on a bus home to Georgia in the middle of the night--a desperate measure that proves calamitous when the child encounters two drifters and is left for dead on the side of the road. Ella awakens in the homestead of Willie Mae Cotton, a wise root doctor and former slave, and her partner, Mary-Mary Freeborn, tucked deep in the Takatoka Forest. As Ella heals, the secrets of her lineage are revealed. Shot through with Cherokee lore and hoodoo conjuring, Glow transports us from Washington, D.C., on the brink of World War II to the Blue Ridge frontier of 1836, from the parlors of antebellum manses to the plantation kitchens where girls are raised by women who stand in as mothers. As the land with all its promise and turmoil passes from one generation to the next, Ella's ancestral home turns from safe haven to mayhem and back again."

--The review--
It can seem at times as if humans are very far from the major historical events and eras of times such as the Second World War and America pre-emancipation, and yet when we visit places that were central to events or talk to people who were there, it seems all the closer as we are reminded what havoc people can be capable of. Parallel to this devastating backdrop of America's treatment of Negroes and Native Americans, Jessica Maria Tuccelli also reminds us of the joy that human beings are capable of bringing forth in her debut novel, entitled Glow.

Visiting places like Washington DC and talking to my grandmother reminds me that our history is in fact often very close to us and within terrifying reach. Tuccelli juxtaposes love and fear, marries the realistic with the fantastical, and tallies an immediate sense of danger with descriptions of soaring beauty. Even though aspects of this reminded me of other books I have read - the supernatural elements taking me back to Helen Oyeyemi's The Icarus Girl, and the sense of childish hope destroyed repairing me to works by Joyce Carol Oates and others - this was in no way negative; the author clearly hallmarks her individual style using skilful changes of voice from adult to child and back again, and combining the accessible with the ambitious.

In Glow, some characters are better painted than others, but this is perhaps an inevitable consequence given the sheer numbers of them. The 'glow' of the title is left slightly ambiguous so that readers can colour in the gaps; we are told that the 'glow' refers to the ability to 'see' the souls of the departed, but we are also given the impression that there is more to it than this, without being told exactly what. In a way, it is a shame that Glow is not a longer novel, as more detail is needed in parts and Tuccelli could have easily continued her already strong narrative. The author makes deft use of both Christianity (using Biblical quotations at the beginnings of chapters to remind even the most hardened of atheists of the Bible's lyricism, even if they don't believe in its content) and the occult (by having the souls of the dead haunt their lineage) in a way that adds elegance, depth, and tension.

Even though the racial aspect of the story could have been threaded through the narrative more consistently (in its present form it seems a little awkward - a bit like the novel's title), and even though Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible unites nature, magic and so on with a little more ease, Glow is certainly not without its charms, with its detail and character making it a rich treasure box that can be plundered repeatedly.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent (Denyse Beaulieu)

 --The blurb--
"What if the most beautiful night in your life inspired a fragrance? Denyse Beaulieu is a [...] fragrance writer; it is her world, her love, her life. When she was growing up, perfume was forbidden in her house, spurring a childhood curiosity that went on to become a[...] passion. It is this passion she pursued all the way to Paris, where she now lives, and entered the secretive world of the perfume industry. But little did she know that it would lead her to achieve a fragrance lover’s wildest dream …When Denyse tells a famous perfumer of a [...] night spent in Seville under an orange tree in full blossom, wrapped in the arms of a beautiful young man, the story stirs his imagination and together they create a scent that captures the essence of that night. This is the story of that perfume. As the unique creative collaboration unfolds, the perfume-in-progress conjures intimate memories, leading Beaulieu to make sense of her life through scents. Throughout, she weaves the [...] history of perfumery into her personal journey [...]: the masters and the masterpieces; the myths and the myth-busting, down to the molecular mysteries that weld our flesh to flowers…[...]Your world will never smell the same."

--The review-- 
I always enjoy receiving books for review, but I especially enjoy receiving titles that are relevant to the multiple audiences of my very different blogs (and not only so that I can cross-post the review!), as such books quite frequently offer insights "behind the scenes" of the world we often get only limited glimpses of - in this case, the complex world of perfumery. Beaulieu's privileged position as perfume writer and general expert (she teaches courses on perfume in institutes in London and Paris) means that we are allowed access to this world at last, in a candid yet approachable fashion.

But there is more to it than this. This beautifully-presented edition of The Perfume Lover, which came wrapped in black tissue and pink ribbon, and with a sample of the perfume created by Beaulieu in the book, is a truly interdisciplinary adventure. Not only does Beaulieu effortlessly blend the history of perfume with her own selective biography, she also takes us on a rich journey through religion, art, literature, and etymology. By combining this with perfumers' secrets of the industry and the mechanics of making a perfume, we almost feel like she is doing the latter herself in book form as she mixes all of these 'notes' to make a unified whole.

We are certainly not disappointed by the amount or quality of insider information that Beaulieu gives us: we are let into how far celebrities are really involved in creating the scents bearing their names (answer: it varies!), told which perfumes are favoured by luminaries such as Michael Jackson (answer: Bal à Versailles), and told why you'll never find a bad review of a perfume in a magazine or newspaper (answer: you'll have to read The Perfume Lover to find out). All of this sets us up for an intriguing read - but none of it is the main part of the story.

Throughout the book we are given tantalising views not only of the laboriousness of the perfume-making process (hundreds of formulae can be conducted in the creation of just one perfume, in the hope of hitting on the right combination) but also into the perfume that Denyse herself created, leaving us wondering what the perfume (whose sample is given with the book) will finally be like when we sprinkle it on our skins. When I finally did, I can't pretend it was completely as I had expected, and obviously reactions, likes, and dislikes will vary from person to person. But there is certainly a thrill to be had not only in knowing that you're testing a perfume that's not due out for another 6 months (it will be released by L'Artisan Parfumeur in the autumn), but also that you know the entire story and process behind it, in intimate detail.

This brings us to the only negative that I detected in this book. While Beaulieu is a master of beautiful description and detail, this does at time lead to too much information regarding her own sex life and what I perceive to be her personal levels of promiscuity (do readers really need to know that as a young girl she practised fellatio techniques on ice cream cones?!). Indeed, for someone who is clearly intelligent and talented, this promiscuity is disappointing; while perfume clearly has a sensual aspect, and Beaulieu is not wrong to emphasise this in the book, in some aspects of this she does take it too far for my liking.

This also means that despite her literary talents I am unlikely to read any more of the books that Beaulieu has worked on as a translator. I mention this because as a translator myself I wouldn't ever associate my name with anything I would be ashamed of or was contrary to my morals and interests. People see that a translator is associated with a work and it can influence their views on that person, even if they did not write it. With empty-headed chick lit on offer (mostly in French, but also in English) and a book about sex games and the history of sexuality (available in French and in English) among Beaulieu's translation repertoire, I somehow have the feeling that our interests don't coincide much, and it therefore doesn't endear me to her in terms of what she may put out in future. This is a great shame, as The Perfume Lover itself makes for an enjoyable and fascinating read. I'll therefore be very interested to see what Beaulieu has waiting in the wings for us.

This review has been cross-posted to Bianca's Beauty Blog