Friday, July 23, 2010

She Is Too Fond of Books: What I've Been Reading

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, is purported to be "a classic gothic page-turner" (USA Today).  I enjoy a good ghost story, and, frankly, this is not one, despite the many accolades to the contrary. There are enjoyable elements; Waters creates a wonderfully gloomy atmosphere, and the characters are well sketched. But as a reader, I found the ending problematic. There is no denoument; there is no satisfactory conclusion. Is there a supernatural element at Hundreds Hall? Or were any questionable events merely the result of familial psychiatric problems? The story ends with more questions than answers. As a writer (wannabe), I can appreciate Waters’s gift for crafting such a narrative, one with no easy answers; but as a reader, I found the lack of resolution irritating.  If these minor annoyances don't trouble you, give it a read for the atmosphere of "quiet dread," as one reviewer put it.  Those aspects of the novel will certainly not disappoint.  Okay.

Special thanks to Jeanne for recommending The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery and translated from French by Alison Anderson. I loved this book for a number of reasons. First off, the prose is nothing but elegance itself. Barbery has mastered the turn of the phrase. And I loved the quirky cast of characters, especially the two protagonists, Paloma and Renee, whose philosophical ruminations illuminate the narrative. Renee, a largely self-educated concierge, hides her true self behind a stereotypical concierge caricature. Paloma, a twelve-year-old genius who’s decided life is not worth living, hides from the world in more ways than one.

I admit that many of Renee’s essays, the one on phenomenology, for example, waft lazily far above my head. I have not read Husserl, Marx, or Proust. I am woefully ignorant of much of Tolstoy (I know -- shocking! I must give Anna Karenina another go). But I still enjoyed Renee’s musings, explanations, and perspectives regardless. And she and I are of the same mind about both tea and proper grammar, the latter of which she insists is an element of Beauty. Allow me to quote from the book, at a point in the story when Renee receives a note containing an offensive comma splice:

“The gifts of fate come with a price. For those who have been favored by life’s indulgence, rigorous respect in matters of beauty is a non-negotiable requirement. Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve ove time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an even greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misusage when using language, one must first and foremost have sworn one’s total allegiance. Society’s elect, those whom fate has spared from the servitude that is the lot of the poor, must, consequently, shoulder the double burden of worshipping and respecting the splendors of language. Finally, [her] misuse of punctuation constitutes an instance of blasphemy that is all the more insidious when one considers that there are marvelous poets born in stinking caravans or high-rise slums who do have for beauty the sacred respect that it is so rightfully owed.
To the rich, therefore, falls the burden of Beauty. And if they cannot assume it, then they deserve to die.”

I laughed out loud.

And Paloma’s frighteningly astute analysis of the people around her is both humorous and caustic. Here’s but one example: “When I think they call these people the elite. . . The only difference I can see between Colombe, Tibere, their friends and a gang of “working-class” kids is that my sister and her chums are stupider.” Moreover, I found heart-wrenching her attempts to find meaning in life. She struggles so desperately to look for reasons to live, and at one point she says, “Live, or die: mere consequences of what you have built. What matters is building well.”

Amid Renee’s and Paloma’s philosophical reflections are woven tantalizing elements of intrigue and surprise that work to advance the plot. Specifically mysterious is the arrival of Ozu, a wealthy Japanese man who moves into their building. Can Ozu see in Paloma and Renee what the rest of the world cannot and what they both wish to remain secret?

While I truly enjoyed this unusual book, I also recognize that it is not for everyone. The text is very French; there is much discourse about Art and Beauty, much philosophizing. I like that kind of thing. I also like the zing of unexpected humor that jumps out at you where you least expect to find it, and this book delivers.  Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. It delighted me. I majored in philosophy and the book had lots of scenarios in common with Madrid. We have buildings like that, teenagers like Paloma's sister, buildings with concierges like Renee, and her dissertations and the humor were very close to home for me.
    The book has been highly criticized but I do savage it, even with the abrupt ending.
    And Ellen, you will love Anna Karenina, it's full of descriptions, details, beauty, thoughts about the meaning of life. I don't want to spoil it for you, but the last pages of Anna Karenina are a masterpiece.

    And thanks to you and Jeanne for writing about The Hundred Dresses, I've read it and loved it, and now I'm reading it to the girls with much interest from my six year old. I talked about bullying and set up the atmosphere for it, and now she is all engrossed in it.


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