Book Review—The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog Cover

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a lot can happen when a middle-aged concierge and a precocious twelve-year-old girl connect thanks to the influence of a retired Japanese businessman. The fact that both the widow and the girl are well read does nothing to assuage the deep existential angst they suffer from as they pretend they are as shallow and uninformed as everyone else. In less-skilled hands, the story would be maudlin. But I found myself often laughing at the sheer absurdity of the situation.

Despite my enjoyment of this well-crafted work, I couldn’t help but wonder if, in the real world, intelligent people are doomed to a life of sadness. The concierge Renée is friends with a Portuguese woman who is more wily than smart, and they do enjoy their afternoon chats over tea and cookies—the one bright spot in Renée’s life. But it’s the girl—Paloma—who doesn’t seem to have anyone, least of all her older sister. And because of this, she is determined to end it all—dramatically. It strikes me that poor people do not have time for such fantasies.

There’s a lot at play in this engaging book, which is mainly a satirical poke at wealth and privilege. The Japanese businessman, Monsieur Ozu, seems to be the antidote. He has taken up residence in the upscale apartment building recently and brings with him a sense of calm beauty. Though privileged himself, Ozu seems to retain genuine humanness that sees beyond rich and poor, well read and illiterate. Thank goodness for that.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description

The phenomenal New York Times bestseller that “explores the upstairs-downstairs goings-on of a posh Parisian apartment building” (Publishers Weekly).

In an elegant hôtel particulier in Paris, Renée, the concierge, is all but invisible—short, plump, middle-aged, with bunions on her feet and an addiction to television soaps. Her only genuine attachment is to her cat, Leo. In short, she’s everything society expects from a concierge at a bourgeois building in an upscale neighborhood. But Renée has a secret: She furtively, ferociously devours art, philosophy, music, and Japanese culture. With biting humor, she scrutinizes the lives of the tenants—her inferiors in every way except that of material wealth.

Paloma is a twelve-year-old who lives on the fifth floor. Talented and precocious, she’s come to terms with life’s seeming futility and decided to end her own on her thirteenth birthday. Until then, she will continue hiding her extraordinary intelligence behind a mask of mediocrity, acting the part of an average pre-teen high on pop culture, a good but not outstanding student, an obedient if obstinate daughter.

Paloma and Renée hide their true talents and finest qualities from a world they believe cannot or will not appreciate them. But after a wealthy Japanese man named Ozu arrives in the building, they will begin to recognize each other as kindred souls, in a novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us, and “teaches philosophical lessons by shrewdly exposing rich secret lives hidden beneath conventional exteriors” (Kirkus Reviews).

“The narrators’ kinetic minds and engaging voices (in Alison Anderson’s fluent translation) propel us ahead.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Barbery’s sly wit . . . bestows lightness on the most ponderous cogitations.” —The New Yorker

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Three Things I Learned from The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita Cover

I don’t recall where I first came across The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, but when I read the book description, I knew I had to have it. I won’t go into the details of the novel since its breadth is vast and includes dozens of fascinating characters, not the least of which are Woland and his bizarre retinue. Here is a highly condensed plot summary that I adapted from Wikipedia:

Satan appears in Moscow at the Patriarch Ponds in the guise of “Professor Woland,” along with a retinue that includes the grotesquely dressed valet Koroviev, a gun-happy, fast-talking black cat Behemoth, a fanged hitman named Azazello, and Hella, a beautiful female vampire. As soon as they arrive, they begin wreaking havoc. First up on the list is the murder of Berlioz, the head of the literary bureaucracy Massolit.

Major episodes in the novel’s first half include a satirical portrait of Massolit and their Griboyedov house; Satan’s magic show at the Variety Theatre, satirizing the vanity, greed, and gullibility of the new Russian elite; and Woland and his retinue taking over the late Berlioz’s apartment.

Part two introduces Margarita, the mistress of an embittered author, known as the Master, who has written a book about Pontius Pilate. She refuses to despair over her lover or his work and vows to remain with him rather than going back to her husband. Later, she is invited to the Devil’s midnight ball, where Woland offers her the chance to become a witch with supernatural powers.

As a reward for serving as hostess of the ball, Woland grants Margarita a wish, which he had expected her to use to release her lover—but which she spends instead on Pontius Pilate, freeing him from his shackle of guilt and infamy and allowing him, at last, to walk alongside Jesus, whose philosophy he so admired. Then, thanks to Woland, the Master and Margarita “die” only to leave civilization with the Devil as all of Moscow’s cupolas and windows burn in the setting Easter sun.

Okay, let’s get started.

Never Accept Anything from the Devil
Most people know this, but that doesn’t stop an audience at the Variety Theatre from taking Koroviev’s irresistible offer of free money and new clothes and running into the street, where the clothes suddenly vanish, and the money turns into strips of blank paper—or worse, foreign currency, which is illegal.

The corollary to this advice is, never get into an argument with the devil—especially over something you know nothing about. Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz learns this lesson the hard way at the beginning of the novel when he attempts to tell Woland that Jesus never actually existed, thus promoting the state’s official atheist position. Irritated with this pompous ass, Woland arranges for Berlioz to die in a freak accident with a tram, where he is quickly dispatched by beheading.

Totalitarianism Makes Everyone a Crook
During the period in which the novel was written, Bulgakov was living in the Soviet Union under Stalin. As the author described it, pretty much everyone was conning everyone for money, power, position, or a combination of all three. People were hoarding rubles under mattresses and foreign currency in hidden compartments.

Because decent apartments were so hard to come by in Moscow, people resorted to all kinds of deception. Styopa, the director of the Variety Theatre and Berlioz’s roommate at Bolshaya Sadovaya 302-bis, had denounced at least five innocent people as spies just so he and Berlioz could acquire their spacious apartment.

Russians Are as Nutty as We Are
The characters portrayed in the novel are not only colorful but easily recognizable. They long for love and money. Husbands cheat on wives, and wives on husbands. They insult one another and kiss up, depending on the circumstances. They overeat and overdrink. They gossip. And some end up in the loony bin.

The Master is residing there, along with a frustrated young poet who goes by the name of Homeless after attempting to chase the devil and catch him for killing his friend Berlioz. George Bengalsky, the master of ceremonies at the Variety Theatre, also ends up in the asylum after having his head torn off, then put back on, when he had the audacity to suggest that what Koroviev was doing onstage was nothing more than tricks and deception.

The Master and Margarita was written between 1928 and 1940 and is as fresh today as when it was first published in the 1960s. The humor is sharp—sometimes caustic, which is necessary to depict the frustration of living as a “citizen” under Stalin. There’s an especially poignant tone that reflects the sorrow of being an artist in a heartless, atheist state. The novel is a gem that in a highly entertaining way gives everyone their due, including the devil.

Book Review—Lucky Jim

I’m pretty sure most readers today have never heard of Lucky Jim, that crazed, lunatic’s cry of literary rage against the sheer boredom of academic life in the early 1950s. I read the novel decades ago and recently picked it up again, having decided to take a break from nail-biting stories of horror and suspense. And I must say, Kingsley Amis’s excoriating masterpiece is just as hilarious the second time around.

When you first meet Jim Dixon, what strikes you is not only his penchant for mockery but his incredible ability to pull the most inventive faces. In fact, I counted no less than ten throughout the book, my favorite being his shot-in-the-back face. Those coupled with his irritatable mumblings, drunken ramblings, and blatant ignorance about women make for an antihero par excellence. And the highlight of these antics? A leaden, uninspired speech he must deliver to hundreds of students and faculty entitled “Merrie England,” whatever that means.

If you love scathing, satirical stories featuring romance, give Lucky Jim a try. And don’t worry that the book was published more than sixty years ago. Its razorlike humor is as fresh as ever. Try to decide which is your favorite Jim Dixon face. And imagine you had to deliver that ill-fated “Merrie England” speech. Hint: a few pulls of good Scottish whiskey and you will indeed be merry. Good luck.

You can find this review at Goodreads.

Book Description

Regarded by many as the finest, and funniest, comic novel of the twentieth century, Lucky Jim remains as trenchant, withering, and eloquently misanthropic as when it first scandalized readers in 1954. This is the story of Jim Dixon, a hapless lecturer in medieval history at a provincial university who knows better than most that “there was no end to the ways in which nice things are nicer than nasty ones.” Amis’s scabrous debut leads the reader through a gallery of emphatically English bores, cranks, frauds, and neurotics, with each of whom Dixon must contend in one way or another in order to hold on to his cushy academic perch and win the girl of his fancy.

More than just a merciless satire of cloistered college life and stuffy post-war manners, Lucky Jim is an attack on the forces of boredom, whatever form they may take, and a work of art that at once distills and extends an entire tradition of English comic writing, from Fielding and Dickens through Wodehouse and Waugh. As Christopher Hitchens has written, “if you can picture Bertie or Jeeves being capable of actual malice, and simultaneously imagine Evelyn Waugh forgetting about original sin, you have the combination of innocence and experience that makes this short romp so imperishable.”

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[Chainsaw Honeymoon Cover]

Book Description
One year ago, Alan and Stacey Navarro underwent a painful separation, leaving their daughter, Ruby, to live with her mom and an over-caffeinated Shih Tzu named Ed Wood. A bright, funny fourteen-year-old who loves shoes and horror movies, Ruby is on an insane mission to get her parents back together. But she can’t do it alone. She needs her two best friends, her dog, an arrogant filmmaker, a bizarre collection of actors, and a chainsaw-wielding movie killer. What could possibly go wrong?

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