The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I wrote this mildly official book review for my last high school assignment. I meant to post it a few weeks ago, but I was too busy finishing up the terribleness that is high school. It’s my last day today.

Throughout Muriel Barbery’s novel, one of the two protagonists is searching for reasons to live, which is a rather odd thing for the protagonist, Paloma to be doing, as she is the young age of 12. Most of us don’t start searching for these reasons until later in life, until the ugliness of the real world starts to seep into the idealized worlds that our parents have built for us. Even though Paloma seems too young to be having these thoughts, she is. Early in the novel, she declares that on her 13th birthday that she will set her French apartment on fire, taking herself down with it. Because this declaration occurs in the opening pages, the reader is thrown into her world immediately. A key characteristic of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the diary-esque style that it is written in. Paloma’s chapters of the novel are written as her “Profound Thoughts,” her reflections on life and her search for beauty. Barbery makes it seem like you are reading Paloma’s diary, as if you came across it one afternoon while cleaning her room. Since Paloma is such an unusual 12-year-old, writing the novel in this style makes it appear more realistic and believable.

Barbery introduces the reader to the other protagonist, the apartment’s concierge Renee, in a much more direct way. Renee’s sections of the novel sharply contrast Paloma’s inner thoughts. These sections tend to have more action, even though that action is mostly elevator rides and afternoon teas. Barbery trades the diary style for a more traditional narrative in these sections, and the designer of the book even changes fonts as well. While this is a minor detail, it made the book for me, as a lover of both typography and design.

The font is not the only minor detail that Barbery gifts to the reader. The hours that the well-read, educated reader spent with her nose in a book while she could have gone out will friends will be rewarded. Barbery sprinkles allusions throughout her novel, the most obvious being the allusion to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Barbery is not afraid to show off her philosophy degree; she frequently name-drops philosophers and great thinkers. Not only does this show Barbery’s intelligence, it highlights that of her protagonists as well, both of who are trying so very hard to keep their intelligence unknown to those around them. Paloma is careful to not be too smart in class, but is still clearly the child that can sit at the adult’s table at Christmas and keep up with the conversation. Renee is also carful to not be smart, as she is just a lowly concierge and should not be concerning her time with those things the upper class read.

As the book progresses, both of the women’s intelligence is shown when a mysterious Japanese man moves into the building. Even though this new character is key to the novel, Barbery is careful to not introduce him too soon, keeping the spotlight on the two female protagonists, which can be rare in literature.

By using her own intelligence, Barbery is able to show how hiding is futile, while also letting her characters grace the reader with witty comments and musings on the world.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

A Recap of my Recent Readings

Hello everyone! I’ve spent the last few weeks delving into a variety of books– everything from The Hours to books on neuroscience.  I also read a collection of short stories (What We Talk about When We Talk About Anne Frank) and the lovely Revolutionary Road. 

Books I’ve read since I’ve last posted and my thoughts on them:

1. Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknik:  As I start thinking about what I’m going to study in college, I’ve been reading about things that I think might interest me.  One of those things is neuroscience.  As someone with a mental illness, the brain has always been a magical place to me that needs to be explored.  I picked up this book at my local library.  Sleights of Mind explores the science behind magic tricks and what is says about how we perceive the world. Even though magic is not my most favorite thing, I found this book incredibly interesting.  What I loved the most is that the author of the book has set up this website that shows all the magic tricks he talks about.  As someone who doesn’t see magic shows that often, I found this resource rather helpful in understanding what he was talking about.  I highly recommend that website if you don’t feel like reading the book (even though you totally should read the book).

2. The Lopsided Ape by Michael Corballis: This was my second book on neuroscience that I read.  Much more science-y that Sleights of Mind, I often had to Google a few things in order to understand it.  Maybe that is the point of a good book, to make you have to look beyond the book in order to understand it.  This book follows the evolution of the human brain and explores language.  A central theme in this book is exploring what makes humans different from other animals.  This book also took me a few months to read, so thank you to everyone in Seminole County for not placing in on hold so I could renew it 500 times.

3. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates: Oh, how I love the suburbs. Oh wait, just kidding.  To me, the central theme of Revolutionary Road is trying to break away from what everyone else is doing.  As someone living in the suburbs, I could empathize with the characters who were desperately trying to not get trapped in the monotony of suburban life.  Again, highly recommend to everyone.  It’s a rather easy read, and the writing is beautiful.

4. What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander: Short stories are the love of my life.  As someone with a short attention span at times and someone who falls asleep super early, short stories give me the opportunity to finish a story before I get bored or fall asleep. I have to admit I did not read every story in this collection.  I did love the title story, as I thought it was a fresh look on the Holocaust.  If you are looking for some different short stories to read, this might be the book for you.  It was not my favorite collection of stories; that goes to Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.

5. The Hours by Michael Cunningham: What. A. Book. Again, as someone with a mental illness, I could relate so much to Virginia Woolf’s fear of her mental illness returning.  I also love how three stories come together to form one smooth narrative.  Favorite quote: “But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you got through that one, and then, my god, there’s another.” There are so many little lines like that in this novel.  I also loved the part of the novel when it discusses the almost other-worldly aspect of hotels.  “By going to a hotel, she sees, you leave the particulars of your own life and enter into a neutral zone, a clean white room, where dying does not seem quite so strange.”

That’s all I’ve read since I’ve last updated.  I’m currently reading the following books: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Awakening, and The Brain that Heals Itself.  I’ll update you when I’m done. Until then, read on.

A Recap of my Recent Readings

On Belzhar, We Were Liars, and the Concept of Denial

I ended 2014 by reading two of the most talked about Young Adult books of the year, Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer and We Were Liars  by E. Lockhart.  The two books, while very different, are centered around faulty, constructed memories, denial, and the authors’ use of unreliable narrators.

The protagonists, Jam (Belzhar) and Candice (We Were Liars), have suffered what appear to be traumatic events. I entered both novels under the impression that something terrible has happened, but not quite sure what, and the protagonists aren’t exactly sure what actually happened either.  Since both books are told from a first person point of view, the reader and the protagonists are both looking for the truth which makes for a strange experience as a reader.  It almost turns into a race between the reader and the protagonist; who will find the truth first?

Quick plot overview:

Belzhar: Jam is mourning the death of her boyfriend and is sent to a boarding school for “fragile” teens.  Jam is put into an English class focused on the works of Sylvia Plath (hence the title; The Bell Jar, Belzhar).  The students are given journals to write in about the traumatic event they went through in order to help them heal.  The journal turns out to be more than just a journal; they take the students back to a time before the trauma happened.  In Jam’s case, she is able to spend time with her boyfriend before he died.

We Were Liars: Candice is trying to piece together what happened two summers ago on her family’s island that left her with memory loss and caused her cousins to stop speaking to her.  As she goes back to the island, she finds out what actually has happened.


The weird thing about these two books is the two different ways the protagonists deal with trauma.

The death of Jam’s boyfriend never actually happened.  He wasn’t quite her boyfriend either.  They kissed drunkingly at a party.  When she found him kissing another girl, Jam declared him dead.  It was easier for Jam to deal with him being dead than the thought that he might be with someone else.  I suppose that he was dead to her.  What Wolitzer is really exploring here is the lies we tell ourselves in order to cope.  Although Jam’s lie seems just a tad irrational, don’t we do the same thing on a smaller scale all the time? We want to believe the version of the truth that is the best for us.  In Jam’s case, that simply involved killing someone off in her mind.

Candice, however, brings the dead back to life.  Her cousins were killed in a fire that she helped to set. Candice talks to her cousins throughout the book, goes to the beach with them, eats lunch with them. They are dead though.  This lie seems more believable to me that Jam’s lie. The denial of death seems to be more realistic than the denial of life.

The brain is crazy. Denial is crazy.  The truth should be easy to find, but these two books show that it is the opposite.

On Belzhar, We Were Liars, and the Concept of Denial

Orxy and Crake

Two posts in one month?? Is this becoming a semi-regular blog??

Yes to the 1st question, and I have no clue to the second.

I spent my Friday night reading Orxy and Crake by Margaret Atwood.  When I picked the book up again on Friday, I was about halfway through.  It was around 7:30 at night, and I planned to read a chapter or two before I inevitably fell asleep before 8.  Well, I made it past 8 and finished the book.

I first read Atwood’s writing over the summer when I crashed Ginny’s house (see previous posts) for a week.  The summer was coming to an end, and I had to read The Handmaid’s Tale before I returned to school.  I figured if I started it in when I was with Ginny in California, I could finish reading it on the plane back to Orlando.  That was simply not necessary.

I ended up reading all of  The Handmaid’s Tale on Ginny’s porch in the span of maybe 4 hours.

I was captivated, and I needed to read more of Atwood’s writing.

When I got back to Orlando, I picked up Oxry and Crake, not really choosing the book for any particular reason other than Atwood has written it.

I’ve been sort of reading it on and off this past month, but also doing that to 5 other books, semi-interested, semi-reading-this-because-I-want-to-like-Margaret-Atwood.

What happened Friday night was something that hadn’t happened in a long time, well 6 months to be exact.

I got totally caught up in the story and was gone. I didn’t check my Facebook Messenger App to see if anyone had messaged me.  I didn’t try to find a Spotify  playlist to listen to while I was reading.  I just joined the story and read.

Mind you, Orxy and Crake didn’t capture me instantly like The Handmaid’s Tale did.  O&C flips back and forth between the present life of Snowman and his former life as Jimmy.  The start of the novel is nearly all in the present, with the occasional flashback. As the novel progresses, the past starts taking up more pages than the present.  That is when I really got into to.

I simply wasn’t interested in how Snowman lived his life, having to watch out for the half-wolf-half-puppy creatures that could kill him, or how he had to wait a week for the Children of Crake to bring him fish.  I really just wanted to know why and how.

Why was he different from the Children of Crake? Why is he alone? How did Jimmy become Snowman?

As the book continues, these answers do come, which I guess is how suspense and plot are supposed to work.

I feel like if I were to read the book again, I would like the beginning more. I would not be as lost as I was in the first read.

This mixture of present and past is used also in The Handmaid’s Tale, but I didn’t care that I didn’t know how the handmaid got to where she was, like I did with Snowman. Her present life was interesting enough that those weren’t the questions that were in my mind.

Should I have cared more about her past life? Should Atwood have made me more interested in Snowman’s present life? I don’t know, but I feel like as long as the author is able to make me care about something, past or present, in the book, then all is okay.

Highly recommend all of Atwood’s work. I went to the library and checked out basically all of the Atwood books they had in stock. Will let you know how The Year of the Flood is compared to her other books. Until then, go check out a book.

Praying I spelled all names right, but who knows, so just take my apology now.

Orxy and Crake

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Wow, I’m actually blogging for the first time in months.  I’ve been very busy with college applications, weight lifting, and reading huge books for school like Anna Karenina, but I finally sat (well laid) down and read something other than Russian novels. One of my friends who is off at college had given me this book before she left, so I felt very obligated not only to read it but to finish it. To be honest, if I didn’t feel obligated to finish it, I probably wouldn’t have. For those of you who haven’t read it, the book basically follows life in Savannah.  I found the beginning very well written; it made me want to road trip to Savannah as fast as I could.  The descriptions brought me back to the charming city, and I think I would have enjoyed the book if it would have had a different conflict. The book’s main plot was focused around a murder and the subsequent 4 trials that followed. Yes, four trials. After the third trial began, I started to feel like I was living in the film Groundhog Day.  The book was simply too repetitive for me.  If there had been only two trials, I think I would have been okay. The trials were broken up with the use of voodoo and black magic, which helped me to actually stay with the book. I am so happy that I finished that book, and I now have started Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.  I’ll keep you posted on what I think of that once I finish.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Hurt Go Happy

Growing up, authors always seemed like distant people to me. All authors must live in some far away city, such as Los Angeles or New York City, and spend every minute writing. I thought of authors as part of a secret society, one where the only way to get in was to grace the shelves of Barnes and Noble with your books. Authors were busy people that did not interact with us lowly readers. Their books, however, were just the opposite.

Books gave me access to the entire world; they brought people that I had only heard about right into my hands. I could travel anywhere I wanted to, speak to whomever was in the book, and befriend the protagonist. Books gave me a VIP pass to all worlds and their citizens. All worlds except for the world of authors, that is.

The wall between the illusive authors and their works was shattered when I read Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby. About a deaf girl who befriends a chimpanzee through sign language, Hurt Go Happy quickly became my favorite book from my childhood. As I finished the book, I noticed the Author’s Note at the end of the book. There, printed only a few pages away from what was the best book I had read up to that point, was Ginny Rorby’s email. It did not appear to be the email to a publishing company but to the author itself. As 5th grade me crafted my email, I was doubtful she would actually reply. My parents told me I would only get a pre-written response from the publisher, if anything.

“Thank you for your email. Ms. Rorby is quite busy writing, but appreciates your thoughts” should be what I would receive, everyone told me. That was, if I did even get a response.

Instead, a few days later, I woke up to an email for Rorby herself thanking me from the kind remarks and wanting to know more about me. I frantically typed back, amazed to be in correspondence with an actual author. Over the next 7 years, Ginny and I emailed almost daily. She would send me an early manuscript of the novel she was working on; I would send her my poetry or pieces that I wrote for class assignments.

Since I was interested in leaning more about chimpanzees, Ginny was able to set up a visit for me to a local chimpanzee and orangutan sanctuary, the same one where she had done her research for the book.

Hurt Go Happy connected me with someone I thought was too good to be real-an author. Her email back showed me the true power of books, connecting people to not only the characters in the books, but the author as well. Having just spent a week this summer staying and writing with Ginny in her tiny Northern California house, I am finally convinced that authors are people just like me. They are people who have a story to tell and simply tell it through words.

Hurt Go Happy

To Read Books Written by the Deceased

Recently I’ve somehow ended up reading books written by people that are dead.  Normally I don’t pay much attention to if the author is dead or alive, but after receiving The Opposite of Loneliness in my Easter basket, I’ve started to notice if the author is still alive.

The Opposite of Loneliness is a collection of essays written by Marina Keegan, a Yale graduate who was killed in a car accident three days after her graduation.  I started reading her book the day that I got it and fell in love with it.  The only thing that kept me from finishing the book that night was knowing that there would never be anything else written by Marina Keegan.  This book was the only piece of writing that I would be able to read by her.

It got me thinking: Should we read books written by people who are dead differently than those whose authors are alive? Should I have stopped reading The Opposite of Loneliness simply because I wanted to savor the only writings that I would read from her? Or should I have just read the whole book in one sitting?

How should we read books written by those who are dead?

As I thought about this, I realized that the majority of books that I’ve read have been written by people who are buried.  People who won’t write ever again.  Shakespeare, Ken Kesey, and George Orwell are just a few awesome authors who are no longer with us. I’ve read books by those three men without even thinking of if they were dead or not.  Not thinking that there would be no new writing from them. I simply read their books without a second thought.

Why were Marina Keegan’s essays different? Why did I freeze before I continued reading?

I have come to the conclusion that I stopped because she was so young.  There should have been more writings from her.  This should not have been her only published work. She was not expected to die.

That was why I couldn’t keep reading.  I couldn’t keep reading because with every page turn, I was confronted by the shortness and harness of life.  Every page turn, I stood face to face with some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read, and it was written by someone who shouldn’t be dead.

I couldn’t keep reading because that could be me.  That could be any of us.

We can all be forced to stop writing, stop dancing, stop singing, stop creating at any moment.

And as scary as that is, it’s also a challenge.

What do we make with our time we have to create?

“And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short” -Marina Keegan

To Read Books Written by the Deceased