Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles (2011)

Reviewer:  BeezusKiddo

Rating: 5 Delicious homemade pierogies

Review:  This is the book that Breakfast at Tiffany's failed to be. Katey Kontent is an intelligent, strong-minded young woman brushing elbows with New York's blue bloods, never quite fitting in herself, but taking the city by storm. I loved this book.

It's not a typical pick for me-- I usually like mysteries, scary books, dark humor. Rules of Civility has none of those, and even has a touch of romance. That's usually not my style. But Katey's narrative voice hooked my right in, and I couldn't help myself. I finished this book in less than a week.

The synopsis, from Towles' website:

Set in New York City in 1938, Rules of Civility tells the story of a watershed year in the life of an uncompromising twenty-five-year-old named Katey Kontent. Armed with little more than a formidable intellect, a bracing wit, and her own brand of cool nerve, Katey embarks on a journey from a Wall Street secretarial pool through the upper echelons of New York society in search of a brighter future.

The story opens on New Year’s Eve in a Greenwich Village jazz bar, where Katey and her boardinghouse roommate Eve happen to meet Tinker Grey, a handsome banker with royal blue eyes and a ready smile. This chance encounter and its startling consequences cast Katey off her current course, but end up providing her unexpected access to the rarified offices of Conde Nast and a glittering new social circle. Befriended in turn by a shy, principled multimillionaire, an Upper East Side ne’er-do-well, and a single-minded widow who is ahead of her times, Katey has the chance to experience first hand the poise secured by wealth and station, but also the aspirations, envy, disloyalty, and desires that reside just below the surface. Even as she waits for circumstances to bring Tinker back into her orbit, she will learn how individual choices become the means by which life crystallizes loss.

Katey's voice is so authentic that I was constantly surprised that this book was written by a man. Towles' captures the intricacies of female friendships, jealousies, and rivalries but never retreats to catfighting.

There are so many quote-worthy passages in this book that it took great restraint for me to only pick one to share:

If my father had made a million dollars, he wouldn't have eaten at La Belle Epoque. To him, restaurants were the ultimate expression of ungodly waste. For of all the luxuries that your money could buy a restaurant left you the least to show for it. A fur coat could at least be worn in winter to fend off the cold, and a silver spoon could be melted down and sold to a jeweler. But a porterhouse steak? You chopped it, chewed it, swallowed it, wiped your lips and dropped your napkin on your plate. That was that. And asparagus? My father would have sooner carried a twenty-dollar bill to his grave than spent it on some glamorous weed coated in cheese.

But for me, dinner at a fine restaurant was the ultimate luxury. It was the very height of civilization. For what was civilization but the intellect's ascendancy out of the doldrums of necessity (shelter, sustenance and survival) into the ether of the finely superfluous (poetry, handbags and haute cuisine)? So removed from daily life was the whole experience that when all was rotten to the core, a fine dinner could revive the spirits. If and when I had twenty dollars left to my name, I was going to invest it right here in an elegant hour that couldn't be hocked.

Before starting this book, my interest went back and forth. The synopsis didn't particularly grip me, and I named it as a book I planned to read in 2012 only because it was getting so much noise over at the BlogHer book club. My friend Regina lent it to me, and since I had finished up my book club books for the month, I decided to pick it up. I'm so glad I did, this book is a gem.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour, D. Michael Stoddart (1991)

Reviewer: Ignacio van Kugel

Rating:  4 musky, onion scented pierogies

Review:  “Take your stinking paws off of me you damn dirty ape!” –Astronaut Taylor.

How often do you consider your nose, the way things smell, or how smells affect you?  There can be little doubt, that of all our senses, olfactory receives the least conscious thought on any given day.  In fact, humans have a distain of their own human smell, as we all are aware of the great amount of daily effort to remove all trace of human scent.  Language reflects a human preference to sight over smell with the phrase “I see” to mean I understand, whereas, “something smells” to mean that something is wrong.  D. Michael Stoddart attempts to explore this lack of conscious thought of the nose, why humans have a complex relationship with how we feel about how things smell, and our own human scent.  Stoddart takes a multidisciplinary approach in his book in attempting to analyze the role olfactory plays in human biology, culture, psychology, and evolutionary history. 

Stoddard begins with a fairly technical explanation of how the olfactory bulb is connected to the brain of various creatures, including humans.  It is well known that other animals use scent, and sexual attractants to aid in reproduction.  In fact, olfactory is often critical to reproduction, and in some species sexual development and maturation.  Experiments on mice that have their olfactory bulb removed results in the mice having no interest in sex, and other hormonal effects.  Whether such sexual and behavioral disruption is effected in humans is unknown (as it would unethical to remove the olfactory bulb in a person), however, it is suspected that such an effect may occur.  Indeed, the olfactory bulb, which is in the highest passage of the nose, shares a special connection with both the pituitary gland as well as deepest parts of the brain that control emotion.  It would seem the unique feelings that can arise from a scent are the result of this nose-emotional brain connection.  Our eyes and ears lack this direct connection to the emotional brain as the sensory information from the eyes and ears are filtered through the neocortex (conscious brain) before any emotion can be triggered. 

Beyond our olfactory sense being different from our eyes and ears the question is raised, for what purposes does our nose continue to play in human life?  The human body, more than any other primate, contains more scent glands, focused in greatest number in the pubic region, axillary (armpit) region, and face.  That we develop pubic and axillary hair at puberty and that hair excels at increasing the surface area for scents to be release, it would seem that “goat under the armpit” or “flower of youth” scent is directly tied, at least, to sexual maturity and notification of sexual maturity. 

So then, why do we have such disgust with our own odor, and where did the custom of scenting ourselves with perfumes come about.  One interesting aspect of human females is that ovulation is concealed and kept secret from males, whereas in other primates, it is not.  Also, humans, although subject to debate, form monogamous (or at least serial monogamous) relationships in a “gregarious” group.  One theory for this type of relationship to work in a group is that ovulation must be kept secret from males.  Thus, courting behavior will result and force the male to invest time with the female thereby increasing the likelihood that the male will stay with the female throughout the duration of the pregnancy and the resulting 10-15+ years until the offspring reaches adulthood.  One theory of the use of perfume, is that the sexual attractants of plants and animals that do mimic human body odor, was applied to scramble any fertility signals given away by human odor.  

It is clear from the book, that Stoddard is only scratching the surface of the role of scent and human odor.  Although we may think that the nose is a primitive organ and merely a vestigial sense, it is clear that the olfactory sense and our numerous scent glands endured to play a role in the behavior and development of modern humans.  Although, much of the book focuses on the likely sexual connection between humans and scent, it is interesting that the nose is also a direct gateway to emotional parts of the brain.  This likely accounts for the unique feeling that comes about when a scent triggers a memory.  

One final theory worth mentioning is that although human scent may no longer advertise sexual readiness (ovulation), human scent may rather be a way to promote pair bonding, and monogamy through strong emotional attachment.  Could this then account for the ever increasing divorce rates in the last 100 years in Western cultures, where we cleanse, deodorize, engage in depilatory activities; that our ever increasing lack of scent makes it ever easier to break the pair bond?  So ladies and gentlemen, perhaps the best way to keep your significant other is to throw out the soap, deodorant and razors.