Sunday, June 30, 2013

THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG – Muriel Barbery

Looking for some witty writing in a delightful book full of unusual and not-quite-normal characters? Do you like a little philosophical fable-ness once in a while? I do, that's why I am a fan of Yann Martel and Paul Coelho. This short French novel feels a bit like that. The copy I have is borrowed and comes from McNally Jackson in NYC, or so the receipt says left inside. The book itself has such a lovely cover, a dusty blue with a young girl in a pink dress wearing calf-high moccasins in front of a fancy door. It is a quality paperback so the pages are a nice acid-free white, and right away in flipping through I noticed that different chapters are in alternating fonts. How fun! It has a Contents which much fiction doesn't bother with but I love it when they do. In this one I spied right away that there are chapters called Profound Thought No. 1 – 15, and one whole section called On Grammar. I was weak with excitement knowing this would be a quality read, and so it was/is.

Renée Michel is the concierge in a fancy hotel in Paris. Her apartment or loge is on the first floor where she keeps tabs on her employers who are wealthy aristocrats. Renée reminds me a bit of Trudy in Ursula Hegi's book Stones from the River in that she is, in reality, a different person than the one she so painstakingly presents. Renée is well-read, informed, intelligent, and socially and politically aware. However, she knows that to be considered, in Parisian society, a good concierge she must maintain a low profile, go mostly unnoticed, mind her own business, be efficient and reliable, but never enter into intellectual conversations with the tenants, therefore being perceived as uneducated and uncultivated.

Twelve-year-old Paloma lives with her family on the fifth floor. She despises what she sees as the bourgeois lifestyle of her parents and the other tenants of the hotel. Even though Paloma is brilliant, funny, talented, and very politically and socially aware she has expended much energy for many years pretending to be average and thus also go unnoticed. So disenchanted with life and her family she has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

The death of a tenant and the appearance of a new one, a Mr. Kakura Ozu brightens up the lives of both Renée and Paloma. It is on page 143 when Paloma is talking with Ozu and she happens upon the analogy from whence the title comes:
Madam Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.
Paloma may be my favorite child character in a book for at least a decade and her best entry may be in her section Profound Thought No.10: Grammar a Stratum of Consciousness Leading to Beauty where she not only takes offense at the ineptness of a teacher trying to explain to a student the importance of grammar, but goes on to elucidate in her own words, “I find there is nothing more beautiful, for example, than the very basic components of language, nouns and verbs. When you've grasped this you've grasped the core of any statement. It's magnificent, don't you think? Nouns, verbs...”

Paloma and Renée realize they are kindred souls. Renée sees more to herself and Paloma learns to be less depressed. They are survivors after all and such wonderful characters. I would read this book again.

GONE GIRL – Gillian Flynn

There certainly was enough hype about this book this spring to warrant a read. My copy has a sticker on it that says, “Thriller of the Year” with which I take umbrage. When I think of “thrillers” I think about being on the edge of my seat dying to, but scared to, turn the pages. There are unsavory people here, and plenty of lying, cheating, and creepiness. But I was never scared to turn a page or worried for any of the characters' safety. That being said this a great read with plenty to speculate about and unusual character development. It has been a while since I read a book where I didn't like, even a little bit, any of the main characters!

Nick and Amy appear to be the perfect couple. Both are well educated, smart, and good looking. On the fifth anniversary of their wedding Amy goes missing. A good one third of the book is a set up for you, the reader, to hate and suspect Nick of murdering her. Amy was independently wealthy when she married Nick. She was also an extraordinary beauty, popular and professional before they both lost their jobs and moved to Nick's home town to run a local bar. Nick also teaches part-time at the community college. Once Amy suddenly disappears it comes out that she was not happy being away from NYC, they had spent all of her money, and Nick has been having an affair with a student of his. The police proceed making what they believe to be a clear murder case against Nick. Nick does himself no favors by lying and trying to cover up his indiscretions. Evidence starts to pile up which Nick swears has been planted.

Looking at Nick and Amy the reader soon sees that these are not normal people. One is a sociopath and the other a narcissist. Amy's parents aren't normal either. They have spent a lifetime creating a series of children's books about their daughter called “The Amazing Amy” series, then trying to make her live up to their expectations. At first they back Nick but then turn against him. Nick's father is a very mean and vindictive man suffering from Alzheimers but aware enough to still get out of the nursing home and haunt his family. The only one in Nick's corner is his sister who stays loyal to the end.

You will not be disappointed in this book, and if you are like me you will almost have it figured out but there will be just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing to the end. Be prepared to have the hair stand up on the back of your neck when the real crimes are all revealed. It is disturbing to think about the ramifications of being in a relationship you can't get out of when your partner is a sociopath. What would you do if you were innocent of a crime but all the evidence pointed to you? What lengths would you go to if you needed to free yourself from a relationship that seems to be killing you? What would you do if the person you married isn't who you thought they were? What if you found out your partner is truly evil? And here is one for you, what would it be like if you were so beautiful that all your life people just wanted to give you things and be near you? Could you ever learn to be a normal person with empathy and humility? Are there people like that? Are sociopaths born or are they products of their environment? Is narcissism inherent or learned?

I highly recommend Gone Girl for a good summer read. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

LOVE MEDICINE – Louise Erdrich

The local public library chose this Native American title for May and I for one was looking forward to discussion. Having read it long ago, my old 1993 copy was still on the bookshelf but frustratingly, bringing much of the plot into my tired brain was not to be. Therefore it was like reading it for the first time. So many characters were introduced immediately in the format of short stories not in any kind of chronological order that I soon got lost and confused. Consulting the Internet, I retrieved a family tree of the characters and then made myself a notecard with a few notes on relevant connections and events. After that I was fine and enjoyed this lovely book again. The reprinted versions have the tree and other notes included that would have helped me. Oh well.

The book jumps around the years between 1934 to 1984 involving two families on a reservation in North Dakota. Each chapter is narrated by a character in either first or third person and is presented to the reader as a story. What was great about this is that the reader is in each chapter narrator's head and sees an event unfold, but then in another chapter that same scene will play out from a different perspective.The thread that ties all the stories together is in the character of June Morressey who in the first chapter walks out into a snow storm and freezes to death. She has a close tie to all the other narrator/characters and thus her story unfolds from the time she was a small orphan going to live with her aunt, through her troubled years married to her cousin, past her divorce, and into a life of illicit sex and alcohol abuse. June was admired and loved so the people she leaves behind are haunted by her passing.

There is so much to appreciate in Love Medicine. The triangular love story between Marie and Nectar Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine is thought provoking, colorful, and wonderfully funny at times. Native American values, beliefs, and their fight against the government are all put into perspective and made real. The importance of extended family, raising children with a lot of love, and strong matriarchs are all prevalent themes in Erdrich's work. All of the characters are wonderfully rounded out, complicated humans, and interesting. Marie is probably the best and most detailed character. After her failed attempt at becoming a nun she spends her life loving her alcohol-haunted husband and taking in orphaned and unwanted children. I certainly will never forget the evil nun who tried to ruin Marie's life and never felt remorse or humility even on her deathbed! Lulu is the most colorful person in this book. Beautiful, sharp-witted, but hopelessly in love with Nectar since childhood, she has eight sons all by different fathers.


My favorite chapter is “Love Medicine (1982)” narrated by Lipsha in which he helps his grandmother administer the love medicine to his grandfather, but also in which he asks his grandfather why he shouts in church. Grandfather says it is because that is the only way God can hear him and Lipsha realizes that God indeed is becoming deaf to the plight of American Indians. This book does not romanticize the Indian culture nor disparage it. We get a brief look at complicated lives in an unfamiliar culture exceptionally presented. What more could we ask?  

MALEVIL – Robert Merle

Showing my age here... In the late sixties and early seventies my friends, brothers, and I immersed ourselves in post atomic bomb lit like Failsafe, On the Beach, A Canticle for Leibowitz, I am Legend, and many more mostly mass market paperbacks for which remembering the titles is fruitless. We had great fun and devoured those books one after another. Recently my interest has once again been piqued for post-apocalyptic literature and not only the kind pivoting on nuclear war. I have branched out into zombies and vampires I must admit. This past year, thanks to a generous brother's Christmas present I find myself in possession of a hard copy in really good condition of an old favorite, Malevil by Robert Merle. I have reread it and enjoyed it all over again. For an older post-apocalyptic read you might try this one. Not long and pretty easily read in a day or two.

Reading Malevil with a much more mature mind however makes for a quite different experience. Questions came up that never occurred to me the first time around. For instance why is it assumed immediately that a man will be in charge of everything, and why immediately is there a quest for women with which to procreate? Oh well...

In the rural countryside of France a young man has acquired on old castle, Malevil, nestled up under a cliff. He is in the process of making it into a type of resort for vacationers. It has been renovated, stocked with food, wine, livestock, and servants when the dropping of some kind of bomb or bombs takes place. Emmanuel, his employees, livestock, and several of his friends who are visiting him survive because of the strength of the castle walls and the protection of the cliff, only to discover that the landscape and all the people around have been incinerated.

From there on this is a book about survival with the people of the castle reverting to a medieval lifestyle and an agrarian society. Not only do they need to plan for remaining fed and clothed in the future, but also to plan for defending the castle against marauders. Soon they find that there are survivors in a nearby village. In this village there are women of childbearing age who of course the men of Malevil want, and also weapons and ammunition. Conflict is quick to arise as the village is being lead by a sociopathic cleric in cahoots with a band of militiamen.

There is a little bit of something for everyone here. Some blood and guts (but not too much), a little religion, a love story or two, and survival planning. It may not be as shockingly good as I remember but still a good read for a rainy day. The book is presented as being narrated and written down by Emmanuel (interesting name don't you think for the leader of a new civilization?) with notes interjected by Thomas his friend, which was interesting.


I am thinking about trying to find a copy of Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. I wonder if I can get anyone else interested in rereading that great oldie?