I think I’ve been very lucky in my reading choices this year. And it keeps getting better. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery has been on my wishlist for a long time until my happening sister got it before me. Lucky for me, she’s the sharing sort, so I finally brought it home where it sat on my shelf for months. And you know what, I wish I’d reached out sooner for this book because it’s probably my favourite book of the year so far. I loved everything about it. The subversive humour, the gentle warmth, the spiky asides. Everything. Even the ending, which broke my heart a little but which brought home the message that I think Barbery was trying to make in a gently meandering way throughout the book.

I loved the main character Renée Michel, the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment block on the Left Bank. I also particularly loved Paloma Josse, the lonely, precocious and cynical 12 year old set apart from her peers by her acute intelligence and who is contemplating suicide. And most of all, I loved Kakuro Ozu, the gentle Japanese businessman who moves into the apartment block and is the catalyst that brings about the changes that everyone desperately longs for. It was a pleasant surprise for me to find a Japanese connection in this novel as all I knew about it was the concierge who hid behind a mask of ignorance and the clever child who both share a love of the philosophical.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was smart, funny and made you see the foibles and petty prejudices of the middle classes, and the difficulty in which people who don’t share the same views find themselves. Not that Barbery is saying that being different is good or that following the crowd is mindless and stupid. It’s not as simple as that, of course, and Barbery should know since she’s a philosophy prof and spends her career thinking about these sorts of things.

For example, take Renée’s musings on being a concierge:

Similarly it has been decreed that concierges watch television interminably while their rather large cats doze, and that the entrance to the building must smell of pot-au-feu, cabbage soup or a country-style cassoulet. I have the extraordinary good fortune to be the concierge of a very high-class sort of building. It was so humiliating for me to have to cook such loathsome dishes that when Monsieur de Broglie – the State Councillor on the first floor – intervened (an intervention he described to his wife as being ‘courteous but firm’, whose only intention was to rid our communal habitat of such plebeian effluvia), it came as an immense relief, one I concealed as best I could beneath an expression of reluctant compliance. (p.16)


And regarding one of Paloma’s pet peeves:

My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raging fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She’s vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue. It would seem that children believe for a fairly long time that anything that moves has a soul and is endowed with intention. My mother is no longer a child but she apparently has not managed to conceive that Constitution and Parliament possess no more understanding than the vacuum cleaner. (p.47)

I love her. And don’t you love the cats’ names? Hysterical.

Barbery’s tale is peopled with characters who go to great lengths to hide who they really are behind a facade created to placate others into believing that everything is in their rightful place and the social etiquette is observed. However, there is always the danger of exposure which underpins their daily routine. It seems as though Barbery’s characters feel that being alone may be the answer, but when they meet someone who sees them for who they are, something changes.

Some may find this book pretentious, but I found it warm, kind and hysterically funny. It is, after all, a book about friendship. So before I gush too much, I urge you to try this. I, on the other hand, am going back to try Barbery’s first offering, The Gourmet which features one of the other residents in Renée’s apartment block and is also published by Gallic Books. Or I may just go back and read this book again. Wonderful!

I read this for Paris in July and also for the TBR 2010 Challenge. Yay, progress.

Paris in July update

18 July, 2010

I’m in the middle of reading Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog which I’m lovin’, lovin’, lovin’. It’s such a cool and beautifully written book and I’m taking my time reading it.

In the meantime, I’ve booked a short trip to the beautiful city at the beginning of August with my parents and thought this book would be useful: 24 Hours Paris by Marsha Moore which I was lucky enough to win from Me And My Big Mouth. Our family’s been in love with Paris since before we were born so we’re pretty au fait with the place, but it doesn’t hurt to find new places to go, right? It’s a pretty nifty guide divided by hour, and believe me, there are tonnes of things to do 24/7.

One place I’ve got my eye on is the Albert Kahn Museum. I saw a documentary about him and his photographers who have amassed a huge collection of autochromes from around the world in the early 20th century. You see long forgotten people and cultures in COLOUR and they are beautiful.

And we’ll be stopping by for a Grand Marnier soufflé at Le Soufflé. Yum.

I’ve been meaning to visit the Catacombs at Denfert-Rochereau for years but I don’t think my parents are gothically inclined…

And I’ve saved the best for last: thank you BookBath and Thyme for Tea for the Tournée du Chat Noir torch light which I won for Paris in July. It’s amazingly stylish and will be very useful!

Paris in July

25 June, 2010

Oh, I wish I was there… Who doesn’t love Paris for the beautiful architecture, the boulevards, the tartines at breakfast, the Grand Marnier soufflés and the elegant and relaxed way of life? And especially the important part literature and art plays there.

Bookbath and Thyme for Tea are hosting Paris in July next month to celebrate this beautiful city, and I will be participating by reading a French book (in translation, may I add. My GCSE French is rather dusty and I can only understand un petit peu de Français.) I know, I know, I can hear you say I’m overdosing on challenges, but it’s one book and maybe I can squeeze in a film, right? How hard can that be? I’ve just seen the trailer for the new Sophie Marceau/Monica Belluci film, Don’t Look Back (Ne te retourne pas), which looks great but I don’t think it’s out yet.

And what will I be reading? Probably one of these:

The Fairy Gunmother by Daniel Pennac
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbary
The Châtelet Apprentice by Jean-François Parot
The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq, Criminal, Spy and Private Eye by James Morton
Passionate Minds: The Great Scientific Affair by David Bodanis

Exciting stuff, n’est-ce pas?