Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

Renee Michel is the concierge for an apartment building of wealthy and oblivious tenants in France. She molds herself to the expectations the tenants, responding promptly to the smallest beck and call to run errands, complete tasks, or perform other duties befitting a concierge. What she does not reveal, however, is her reflective and satisfying inner life, stimulated by contemplating philosophy, enjoying classical music, and performing her daily tea ritual. Paloma Josse, a 12-year-old resident in the same apartment building, similarly disguises her aptitudes and interests. Before reaching adolescence, she has already discovered that life is a lie that people dedicate themselves to perpetuating. Rather than grow into an adult who is complicit in the deception of life, she has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. Paloma and Renee offer commentary on the habits of others while covertly pursuing their own interests until a new tenant arrives, which causes an unexpected intersection in their parallel lives. Kakuro, a foreign entity in every way, brings a new perspective to the apartment building by disrupting tradition and creating different possibilities. As a result, Paloma and Renee both find a new reality that challenges their previous ways of thinking and, despite the vulnerability and discomfort it may cause, encourages them to live honestly, openly, and fully.

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery is almost as much a work of art as it is a novel. Every page is filled with exquisite prose. Barbery’s descriptions are almost (but only almost) unnecessarily eloquent and detailed, vividly bringing to life the smallest task or most mundane setting. Amazingly, she never runs out of words. Throughout the book, she maintains the expressive tone of the story and characters by incorporating an unbelievably extensive vocabulary, which makes for entertaining and engaging reading. This is a book that cannot just be read; it must also be processed.

I absolutely loved this book, though I had some difficulties with it at the start. The story is told from two alternating perspectives, and for a while I was convinced that it was the same character at different points in time, which was quite confusing. Once I figured out the characters, though, the rest of the book was heartbreakingly beautiful to read. On multiple occasions, I had to stop reading to think about what was written on the page, and I was always happy to do so. I would have been even happier to discuss it with other people. Books that spark both thought and conversation are incredibly satisfying. If nothing else, you absolutely MUST read her page-long description of drinking tea. I read it three times in a row, and that still wasn’t enough. All around fabulous.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Cowboys Are My Weakness

Cowboys Are My Weakness – Pam Houston

In her collection of more or less autobiographical short stories, Houston shares stories about searching for adventure out West. From rafting a river at the highest recorded water level in decades, to winter camping in mind (and limb) numbingly cold temperatures, to hunting Dall sheep all across Alaska, these stories cover the entire range of the western mountain existence. Of course, stories of adventure often coincide with stories of love, and the added element of personal relationships increases both the excitement and the danger. More often than not, the stories are the same, and seeking love is as much a part of adventure as thrills are a part of intimacy. Whether caught up in the exhilaration that comes with living life to (and beyond) the limits or the whirlwind of new romance that destroys every aspect of a carefully constructed existence, these stories thoughtfully reflect on finding yourself, losing yourself, and reconstructing yourself through adventure.

“Cowboys Are My Weakness” is an entertaining collection of stories about life at the limits. Pam Houston writes with bluntly accurate and witty honesty, daring to reveal patterns of behavior that perpetuate problems rather than solve them. Her tone helps convey the lessons of her stories because gentle, vague references of losing yourself for love more often obscure the subject matter, whereas direct statements drawing attention to problems help to identify and clarify what exactly is problematic. Her stories of love and adventure are sincere because Houston writes unapologetically and authentically with no pretense about having all the answers. Despite certain niches in subject matter and terminology (particularly as it relates to hunting, rafting, and other outdoor pursuits), the stories are relatable and understandable. Houston has a knack for finding misadventure and taking the reader along for the ride.

There are a couple reasons I really loved this book. It was recommended to me by a friend who has excellent taste in books and can generally be trusted to provide quality reading material. The setting and content of the stories reminded me of my time working at camp in Colorado, biasing my reading of this book with always helpful nostalgia. And the stories themselves are engaging and entertaining retellings of adventures that are on the outer range of activities that I would consider doing (but for now, I’ll settle for living vicariously). Not to mention the painful but healing self-reflection that comes with attentively analyzing these areas of life. Overall, I found the stories in this book to be funny, exciting, relevant, and challenging; a combination of characteristics that make for high quality reading material.