For The Love Of Books

From “Bookmobile History and Photo Album

Now that I live two blocks from the public library in Jackson Heights, I have been ordering books like crazy through their online system since moving here a little over a month ago.

When I’d left NY for CA 13 years ago, this poor little branch library had been trying its best to keep the shelves stocked. Starting a section for “Trade Fiction,” which I would peruse regularly, had been part of their vision to further serve their loyal readership.

But, alas, back then, the book thieves (latent sociopathic types who, lacking a conscience, have no consideration or regard for other people or rules and regulations and are too lazy to check out and return books in the normal fashion) seemed to be winning the library’s ongoing battle to remain viable.

Zoom to the present time and its gratifying to note that the library has been the beneficiary of a large endowment from the city. While their collection by library standards is meager, a state of the art online system has been implemented and, as in amazon. com, you can request a book online and, a few days later, an email will arrive in your mailbox announcing your book’s arrival at the local branch.

And it won’t cost you a cent.

Being so close to the library reminds me of the era of the Bookmobile, that wonderful library on wheels, which, when I was a kid, would show up on my block every week without fail offering a treasure trove of books.

As a result of this marvelous perk in the neighborhood, I have already finished five books during these past few weeks and I’m presently working on the sixth. Here’s the list, in the order in which I’ve read them:

  1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog – by Muriel Barbery
  2. Fierce Attachments – by Vivan Gornick
  3. Nothing Was the Same – by Kay Redfield Jamison
  4. Brooklyn – by Colm Toíbín
  5. Stitches – by David Small
  6. Dear Husband – a short story collection by Joyce Carol Oates

I’d like to begin this series of posts by talking about the first book on my list.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (my last actual “purchase” before joining the library) is a book that has been well-reviewed and which, early on, had piqued my interest.  The novel  is told in alternating chapters and through the voice of its two main characters: Renée, a concierge in an upscale apartment building in Paris; and Paloma, the twelve year-old precocious daughter of one of the tenants.

As the book goes on, their mutual love of Japanese culture and similar character types converge and they become friends.

Why I liked it: I was hooked immediately by the intelligent writing, often hilarious wit of Renée’s character and the inherent humanity within her that was deftly conveyed to the reader. A combination of Mrs. Doubtfire, Miss Jean Brodie and Hyancinth — the main character the PBS British sitcom: “Keeping Up Appearances” — she’s an autodidact and passionate lover of the arts, who possesses heightened powers of observation and discrimination.

In one passage, when musing about her relationship with her cat, Neptune, she thinks: “…we appreciate each other a great deal, no doubt because of that state of grace that is attained when one’s feelings are immediately accessible to another creature’s.”

Or, this: “I smeared my lips with a layer of ‘Deep Carmine’ lipstick that I had bought 20 years ago for a cousin’s wedding. The longevity of such a useless item, when valiant lives are lost every day, will never cease to confound me.”

Or: “The toilet paper, too is a candidate for sainthood.”

Truly funny.

Beautiful writing, authentic sentiment. I wanted so much to love this book.

However, as much as I tried to deny it, I was having a problem with Paloma’s voice. I felt it was too close in age and experience to Renée’s. My mind would often drift as I was reading her sections.

Granted, I’d occasionally be stopped or duly impressed by an acute observation made by her character, for instance: “As far as I can see, only psychoanalysis can compete with Christians in their love of drawn out suffering.”

But, to my taste, Paloma’s voice too closely resembled Renée’s — but without Renée’s sharp humor and undertone of humanity.

Paloma despises her family, rarely has anything good to say about any of them. After a while, it becomes predictable and tiresome. We are told about Paloma’s suicidal thoughts, yet her character seems to lack any believable sense of despair. I also had a difficult time believing that she was twelve years old. If only she would have displayed one or two traits that revealed her chronological age.

At one point, her character says, in describing someone else (though, maybe we are to believe she’s also talking about herself): “…truly nasty people hate everyone, for sure, but most of all themselves. Can’t you tell when a person hates himself? He becomes a living cadaver, it numbs all his negative emotions but also all the good ones so that he won’t feel nauseated by who he is.”

Twelve years old? Really?

That said, it was Renée’s character that kept me reading, and interested — all the way up until about 75 pages before the end. Then, things started falling apart for me.

The love interest (or friendship — it’s not made clear) that had been introduced to Renée earlier in the book (a Japanese man called Ozu), seemed underdeveloped and a bit too perfect — to the point where I’d more than once wondered if he would turn out to be a more sinister character in some way (he didn’t…too bad).

Finally came what I can only describe as the deux ex machina: “the improbable device to resolve the difficulties of the plot.”

I will not give away the ending, but I have to conclude that the events surrounding the outcome of Renée’s fate seemed — I’m sorry to have to say this — cheaply wrought.

Still, there is much to like about this book. Would I recommend it? Yes, for the beautiful writing and gorgeous sentences, the character development of Renée, and also what I learned about transcendental idealism and Japanese culture.

What I’m wondering is, has anyone else read The Elegance of the Hedgehog? Given the positive reviews, I would love to know if I’m the only one who felt disappointed upon closing the back cover?

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