Tag Archives: book review

Cross post – Book Review: Beyond the Sling

A cross post review from my other blog:  In this day and age of detachment parenting Mayim Bialik, or Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler for you Big Bang Theory fans, attempts to address the myths, the trials and tribulations, and the benefits of attachment parenting.   As an advocate for birth empowerment as well as a prosthelitizing believer in natural childbirth the words of a woman with a PhD in neuroscience held allure.  To me it was about finding someone who had done a home birth, breastfed (even did extended breastfeeding), and unschooled her children who was so credentialed the world was sure to stand up and see the validity in what so many of us non doctorate holding moms already know: learning is innate, our bodies are designed to propagate our species as well as take care of our young, and submitting to your babe’s needs does not mean you are permissive.


Unfortunately, when I caught a few clips of her on television while promoting this book it seems as though the world does not want/need credentials to view these things with validity, and instead seems to hold fastidiously to the notion that kids should be separate and independent of the parent almost from birth – the sex life of the parents holding higher import than bonding of each parent with their children.

This book takes on the issue of a sex life and the family bed with anecdotes and personal examples, but the most important aspects -the biology, anthropology, and psychology of infants-  are dealt with in both a blend of science and personal outtakes from her life.   Take, for example, this bit from her chapter about gentle discipline and particularly about the notion of telling a child to stop crying/discouraging them from crying:

Tears have been found to contain small amounts of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.  Crying may serve to release tension and stress from tiny bodies, and it is normal and healthy.  Seeing crying as a natural and reasonable form of communication removes the stigma our culture associates with it.  It may not be the most effective communication tool, but it is sometimes the only one small children have in their limited arsenal.

As was typical of her work this was followed up with a bit of psychology as well as an example from her own family:

Some family and friends found it funny (or perhaps uncomfortable or unsettling?) and mocked our boys’ crying, albeit playfully.  This is, frankly, not at all helpful, and it perpetuates the idea that children shouldn’t cry when we think they shouldn’t.

This next bit I’m sharing simply because I found it beautifully stated – from the same section, but in a subsection called “Violence”:

The distinction between hitting in anger (as in “the heat of the moment”) as opposed to hitting as part of a purportedly “calm,” regimented spanking is an academic one but not a practical one; both methods involve hitting a child, thereby causing a tiny brain to release neurotransmitters and hormones to cope with pain and fear while suppressing fight/flight pathways.  The simplest reason we don’t hit is this: hitting is hitting.  It’s not love.  It’s not teaching.  It’s hitting.  You can say you are hitting with love, or that you are using hitting to teach something, but it’s still hitting.

Her sections on breastfeeding and natural childbirth are equally important, although for more information on the benefits of these practices I can not recommend Pushedor Born in the USA (I will review Dr. Marsden Wagner’s book at a later date) enough.  It is my sincerest wish that more people would read this book with an open mind.  Kids have nothing to lose by a parent reading this and taking much of its wisdom to heart and everything to gain.

Have you read it?  Have a favorite or not so favorite section?


Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Per the book jacket:

Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down.  His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job.  But <r. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming – a battle for the very soul of America… and they are in its direct path.

To say that is an overly simplistic and practically boring synopsis compared to what my experience of it would be an understatement.  This work takes myths and legends of gods from many cultures and gives them faces, expounds upon their personalities, and brings them to life in a manner that is not wholly unlike what Toni Morrison does with her magical realism, but without the ethnocentric and overly wrought depressive tones.  The reader is taken on journeys to different times to learn how gods were brought to America or simply how the gods came into being each story told with a different flavor and oft times different narrative voice.  My favorite passage of the entire 588 page tome came in the section called “Coming to America 1778” :

Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, “casualties may rise to a million.”  With individual stories, the statistics become people – but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.  Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears?  To see him from the inside?  And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child?  And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us.  They are covered with a smooth, safe nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

This passage resonated with me a great deal and speaks to the heart of some of my views.  That said, there are a few areas where I would have preferred Gaiman to be slightly restrained in his sharing.  Mostly in that I really don’t like it when authors even mention characters needing to relieve themselves regardless of the vernacular used.  I get the idea that this is a way of demonstrating human action, that we might feel more grounded in the realism of a fantastic story with such details, but for me it’s extraneous.  When a character is human I assume they have to go to the bathroom upon waking and several more times throughout their day.  There’s also the matter of a few inconsistent point of views offered although they’re at least pretty clearly rendered even if mildly annoying when one happens across them.

But that’s the worst thing I have to say about this book and even to my thinking and ears it sounds awfully fussy.  Very much a worthwhile book to dedicate time to.  Gaiman is a master craftsman with an excellent literary voice and one of the most clever minds involved in modern fiction.  Is it any wonder I already have Fragile Things  on my TBR shelf?

Seriously, if you haven’t read it and enjoy GOOD fantasy, this is a must read.  And, heck, HBO is going to make a series out of it!

Review: Practical Magic

There comes a time when we all must come clean, and so I will do so now – with you.  I saw Practical Magic in the theater before I knew it was based upon a book.  Even worse?  I didn’t read the book until more than a decade after having seen the movie.  Not that I stopped watching the movie in the mean time since I LOVE it.  Easily one of the few movies I watch whenever I need a bit of hope and a pick me up while still getting a bit of a cry out in some of the more powerful scenes.  Even with “Based upon the novel by Alice Hoffman” coming up on the screen I still managed to always forget about picking it up at the bookstore.  Well, thanks to a gift card from a friend, and a review by a lovely blogging buddy, I finally picked it up and devoured it.

The story chronicles the lives of two sisters, Sally and Gillian Owens, as they grow up with their aunts who seem to possess a gift of meddling in people’s love lives.  For a fee, of course.  Sally, on the other hand, is fastidiously proper and has taken over the role of mother hen to all in the house – a reaction seemingly born of her newly orphaned status, while her sister Gillian continuously runs from commitment and love to avoid being left.

It is a tale that takes place over decades.  Each young girl grows, makes choices, and moves into adulthood, but it is Sally we mainly follow.  Her transitions through girlhood, to wife and mother, then to widow and the escape from her aunts’ home and the childhood taunting she had endured to a home of her own where she raises her daughters alone.   A woman gone rigid, who did what was “right” for her children, and who stayed alone is the portrait of Sally we see.  There is little of compassion to be had for this character at a certain point.  Her world is her children, unhealthily so, and upon them she places her expectations and demands, to carry out what they’re supposed to be doing.  And then, like a foreboding breeze, Gillian pulls into the driveway with her dead boyfriend in the car.

Wonderfully, the story evolves into one of relationships, the complexities and difficulties, the battles we have with ourselves in order to protect ourselves or perhaps the opportunity for sane risks to take in pursuit of love.  Gillian, Sally, and Sally’s daughters Antionia and Kylie are all three dimensional characters with wants, drives, and evolution while the supporting cast of male characters suffers not at all in the short times we get to know them.  It’s a remarkable and wonderful read with bits of magic, ecstasy, trauma, and joy.

The only complaint that I feel necessary to give voice to is the apparent need of Hoffman to use the f-bomb throughout the first 2/3 of the book instead of any other term for sex.  As a reader I felt it diminished the act in ways that were wholly inappropriate to character voice in those sections, that it might have been the author herself sneering at the idea of reverent sex.  While I do not need, nor do I believe in, each act of sex as qualifying for the term “making love” I do think that the word (brace yourselves) fuck should only be used where applicable, either as a curse or in description of a very particular mode of a physical act.    Still, the book was wonderful and very much worth checking out.

Have you read it?  Seen the movie?  What are your thoughts on the “f” word?

Review: Stargirl

While I was working myself out of the trenches of reading Into Thin Air and other assorted serious texts I decided to reach for a book from my TBR shelf.  This book, bright blue, small, and recalling to mind the dear friend who gave it to me saying, “This is a wonderfully optimistic book.  Read it when you need a lift.”  And so I did.  And so it was.

A Newberry winner this work of young adult fiction takes on similar themes that challenged books have.  “Stargirl”  is the main character and a love interest of the POV character, Leo.  She’s an outsider from the beginning, a new kid who had lived in town most of her life – homeschooled and content with being different.  There is nothing defiant in this character, no conscious decision to be different for the sake of uniqueness, just a steady and confident ownership of self.  Her name is something she chose, the clothes she wears are older, she decorates the desk she inhabits in each classroom with a cloth, a bud vase, and a small flower.  A eukelale is always with her so she can serenade students on their birthdays in the cafeteria during lunch time while her pet rat remains close.

Her caught-in-headlights eyes gave her a look of perpetual astonishment, so that we found ourselves turning and looking back over our shoulders, wondering what we were missing.

She laughed when there was no joke.  She danced when there was no music.

She had no friends, yet she was the friendliest person in school.

In her answers in class, she often spoke of sea horses and stars, but she did not know what a football was.

She said there was no television in her house.

She was elusive.  She was today.  She was tomorrow.  She was the faintest scent of a cactus flower, the flitting shadow of an elf owl.  We did not know what to make of her.  In our minds we tried to pin her to a corkboard like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.

Leo is rather ordinary.  He doesn’t want to stand out and wants to continue running his popular student television show from the booth he sits in.  Then he ends up dating a person who cheers for every team, not just her school’s, someone who was invited on to the cheerleading squad and takes note of every event in the community section of the local paper.  Stargirl loves him.  And, as terrified as he is of how reviled she becomes in the school, he finds himself loving her as well.

When the turn of the tides occurs, however, she becomes shunned.  No one in the school will speak or look at her (except for one true friend) and when they start doing it to Leo he asks her to change.  To try and be like everyone else.

The story, of course, does not end there.  Spinelli brilliantly leads us around from Leo’s point of view as he trips through the pitfalls of needing peer acceptance and the conjoining need to judge and cast aside those who are so different they make us call into question our precepts of “correct” and “right”.  It is the tale of what happens when cateogries are acceptable, but when you remain outside an easily constructed box how it’s so easy for you to become hated.  Cautionary this may be, however, the beauty and optimistic tone of it make this a must read.



This novel, lent to me by my very awesome local library, is the first I’ve ever read of Colm Toibin’s works.  It is a piece of literary fiction about an Irish immigrant named Eilis and encompasses what her life was like in Enniscorthy, Ireland and then what it evolved into in Brooklyn, NY.  When we first meet our protagonist she is unemployed, living off her mother’s disability checks and her sister’s income.  Her father’s death years before made it all but impossible for them to survive on the mother’s income alone and so the oldest daughter is now ultimately the bread winner.  In a time of impoverishment and high unemployment Eilis is hardly on her own in her circumstance.  Her three brothers had already moved to England to find work and now, for reasons discovered later in the book, Eilis is being shipped to America in hopes she can continue her education in book keeping as well as have employment. The US is what her family considers to be her only hope.

It’s a coming of age tale, one that shows us what it’s like for Eilis to fall in love for the first time, how she battles home sickness and even speaks of the rampant bigotry and self-segregation that occurs amongst some of the neighborhoods (Italians vs Irish for example) and so I thought I would love this book.  I did not.  Objectively I can say this author seemed to feel compelled to regale his audience with great detail in regards to sea sickness, particularly how the person sharing the room on the ship with Eilis could tell how she had eaten something with a lot of peas in it before the storm hit, but otherwise kept me at arms’ length through copious telling (not to be confused with “copiously vomiting” like Eilis was described to be doing – a few times).  Having finished the book I have no idea what the point or lesson of it was, some books are just tales, but if that is the case I generally expect to come away with something other than great annoyance for the protagonist.

Her struggle with homesickness and depression was given about a page of expansion and never delved below the superficial signs of it.  No experiences of nostalgia through a familiar scent or sight were brought to the readers’ attention, just our character thinking it felt like something her brother had told her before she shipped out of Liverpool and just a little bit of crying.  The following excerpt is when Eilis discovers she is sad about not being at home in Ireland and contains some of the better description in the book:

…It was only as the dawn came that she remembered something Jack had said to her on the day in Liverpool before she had caught the boat, a time that now seemed like years ago.  He had said that he found being away hard at first, but he did not elaborate and she did not think of asking him what it really had been like.  His manner was so mild and good-humoured, just as her father’s had been, that he would not in any case want to complain.  She considered writing to him now asking him if he too had felt like this, as though he had been shut away somewhere and was trapped in a place where there was nothing.  It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again.  She did not know what she was going to do.  But she knew that Jack was too far away to be able to help her.

There’s nothing, in my opinion, explicitly wrong with the above passage excepting I never got the sense she really was in hell.  She goes through her days feeling glum, gets a talking to at work from superiors who didn’t like her looking sad, and never is there discussion of her mental state and how it impacts her physically.  There are words, adjectives, telling us how she feels but never language to show us, to make us feel, to make us relate.  The jacket boasts a statement I thought to be intriguing:  “By far Toibin’s most instantly engaging and emotionally resonant novel, Brooklyn will make readers fall in love with his gorgeous writing and spellbinding characters.”  And if it’s true I can honestly say I have absolutely no interest in reading another of his works.  Where I normally am a sap and cry over things I found myself only slightly riveted, and where I thought my stomach should have been turning with sea sickness I found myself annoyed as though being greeted by the bad horror movie version of an arterial wound.

Have you read it?  What were your thoughts?

The Poisonwood Bible

This book by Barbara Kingsolver is one that has garnered much coverage and discussion since its release.  Originally I had told myself I would be finished reading it by the end of January but, ‘lo and behold, I just finished it and here it is- the end of February.  The book is dense with both pages and information regarding the history of the Congo.  To those who don’t know the subject matter of this book it is, quite simply, a book about a Southern Baptist family living in the Congo to do mission work.

It begins so eloquently with the reminiscing of the mother, a picnic she has with her girls along a river near their mission station, and is woven intricately in to an impressive hook informing us one of her four daughters will be dead by the end of the tale.  And the tale is about the journey of these five women/girls during the time of their mission.  The hardships they endure through famine, droughts, oppression and the abuse of a father who seemingly has no interest in them nor in the culture in which he is so desperately invested in converting.  Behold a paragraph from the opening chapter:

It lasted just a moment, whatever that is.  One held breath?  An ant’s afternoon?  It was brief, I can promise that much, for although it’s been many years now since my children ruled my life, a mother recalls the measure of the silences.  I never had more than five minutes’ peace unbroken.  I was that woman on the stream bank, of course.  Orleanna Price, Southern Baptist by marriage, mother of children living and dead.  That one time and no other the okapi came to the stream, and I was the only one to see it.

With a wonderful and articulate hook it was still a difficult book to get into.  I daresay I wasn’t fully invested in the story until around page 70 or so but the writing was so very excellent I would just pick myself up by my bootstraps and continue right along hoping I would eventually become invested in the story.  I did.  It’s chock full of history about an area of the world which I have only come to know about in recent years and through my own endeavors.  In truth I learned far more about Africa, particularly the Congo, from this book than I ever did in my formative years and am ripe with gratitude for Kingsolver’s tireless research and prose.  This is one of those books I would have to recommend to people if they want to know about the Congo, about Africa and are willing to question the very authority under which so many of us were raised to have faith in.  It questions that faith by a mere laying out of facts through thoughtful characters and the events that occur to them and around them.

The book was divided into sections, at first named after books in the King James Bible, then subdivided with alternating points of view from each daughter and, upon occasion, the mother.  Each voice was unique, exacting and tremendously well wrought but for all that I did, strangely, find it almost lacking due to its excesses. It isn’t that the death of a child wasn’t moving – I cried while wiping away the tears in hopes of reading past it- it was that it suffered from something I think upon as authorial verbosity and editorial submissiveness.  There was much Kingsolver said and, honestly, they were all things many of us should endeavor to listen to but… well, as a piece of literature it came out as only lasting as long as it did so the author could preach about her cause called “Africa” and to provide an ending not called an epilogue so we could have some closure that was unfortunately clumsily written.  I don’t mean the language was poor, the grammar nonsensical, but that it goes from omniscient point of view to the point of view of someone specific and all so we can have that feel good ending that, quite frankly, had little impact upon me due to the overwhelming amount of space in time that occurred before arriving there.

I don’t mean to sound as though this book wasn’t remarkable, that it wasn’t worth reading – it was.  I think anyone high school age or above should read it, examine it, and think about what purpose governments should have in their lives.  Heck, should question central banking as well as the arrogance that seems to come from this thought of knowing what’s better for another group of people – a group of people whom we have not had the experience of living like nor even necessarily knowing in their natural environment.  It was that rich of a book.  And if people are not inclined to pick up a non-fiction work about Africa but REALLY want to know more about it, this book is an absolute must read.  I can not stress that enough.  There are few books I’ve read that do a culture justice, never mind the issues presented when people are submerged in one so vastly different from their own and Kingsolver does all of it amazingly well.

Regardless of my petty annoyances I can honestly say it was a book I’m glad I persevered in reading and would heartily encourage others to do the same.

Have you read this book?  What did you think?

The Country House Courtship

The Country House Courtship is classified as a regency inspirational romance written, and copy provided, by Linore Burkard.  The tale is set in 19th century England on the country estate of Beatrice Forsythe’s sister, Ariana Mornay.  Beatrice desperately wants to marry as advantageously as her sister did and is doing all she can to convince Ariana to sponsor her in London for a season.  While pursuing this course of action Beatrice is introduced to two men: Tristan Barton, a well-dress and seemingly well off dandy, and Peter O’Brien, an articulate and handsome clergyman seeking a vicarage.

In the beginning the story starts off promising enough with many instances of goodness like the following passage:

His gaze fell upon her.  He had very blue and intelligent eyes; eyes that were unlikely to have forgotten her youthful faux pas- Beatrice quickly looked away.  Why was she feeling the least bit flummoxed over this meeting?  She’d only been a mere child, she reminded herself, when she had rashly promised to marry him.  Nevertheless, it was mortifying.

The prose is dead on for the time period, ditto with the hierarchy of relationships, rules of courting, etc – but what it lacks is three dimensional characters.  Peter O’Brien, the clergyman and ex-soldier, is the only fully developed character I could readily perceive.  We know of much of his past through excellent exposition and dialogue without ever feeling as though it were an info dump and, quite honestly, his spirituality is just part of who he is.  The reader is given reasonable explanation as to how he came to being a devout man and never do I doubt the truth of it.  Now, here’s where it gets tricky for me.

I don’t seek out inspirational genre works to read.  When I shop genre fiction it’s romance or sci-fi but mostly I go for the literary fiction or, at the very least, straight up fiction.  Those are my biases.  And here goes:  The religious tone to the book didn’t fly for me.  When I started pondering this I had a good heart to heart with myself wondering if this was because of my knee jerk reaction to so much reliance upon someone other than the characters themselves (except by way of prayer) to resolve things.  Then I remembered Jane Eyre.

Jane was a devout woman living in eighteenth century Britain and never did I have an issue when reminded of her faith.  It was part of her, to separate the faith from the woman would have been disastrous.  Just as it would be should you have separated it from O’Brien- and not just because he was a clergyman.  It was natural to him.  It was real and, as a consequence, he lived because of it.  The rest of the characters didn’t fare so well.

There was one particular scene when Philip Mornay, Ariana’s husband, seems to have an existential crisis and is swearing off God, blaming Him for what seems to be the imminent demise of his wife and I just didn’t believe it.  His air of religiousness didn’t strike me as spiritual or meaningful and so the crisis felt forced- it’s resolution come to far too quickly for me to even be properly rooted in the thought this was a true questioning of one’s faith.  I understand the self-interrogation and re-evaluation of our personal dogmas, especially how it’s supposed to be such a central piece in inspirational romance, but as with any plot device or theme it needs to be integral.  Here it felt contrived.

This isn’t me saying “Oh, noes!  It’s religious- run for the hills!” What I am saying is characters need to be well constructed.  Period.  In order to buy the crisis I first need to be sold he’s of faith- the crisis then, barring anything cataclysmic in the writing (which this author is really quite above), will feel real.  Should the clergyman have had a sudden “Why, God?!” moment I daresay I would have been brought to tears but Mornay left me going, “Can we please get on with this?”

I don’t know whether these things are typical of the genre as per style of writing as, like I mentioned before, it’s not something I seek out for my own reading material.  Purely as a regency romance I still found it lacking for all the reasons I stated above, however, the author did a remarkable job dropping me into the time period.  Detail to traditional garb and politics of the day were both painstakingly wrought and built a tremendous foundation for a historically accurate work.  If you’re a reader of inspirational romance I imagine you might like this but as a piece of literature it fell rather flat.

**Update:  I was informed by the author this book was part of a series and this, being the third book in that series, might have led me to some unfair conclusions.  It is my opinion that character driven stories, even when part of a series, should not rest upon the previous knowledge of the reader for investment.  However, it is important to note that this review was done without knowledge of it being part of a series.

Delta of Venus

I have fought with myself over the last week or so as to whether or not I dared to review a piece of erotic literature on my blog and, honestly, if it weren’t as interesting as this work more than likely I wouldn’t have.  You see, I had only heard of this book from a friend of mine who is, quite possibly, far more particular about her reading material than I am.  In truth I had only ever thought erotica to be those Harlequin Blaze books with the splashy and vibrant red covers (and any of those authors will tell you they write erotic romance which does point to just how inaccurate my perceptions have been).  Never before had I tasted erotic literature.  I thought it was a myth.

And so I took a sojourn to the bookstore and procured this book with the thought I would at least remove another book from my TBR list.  I read it in two days.

The layout is quite intriguing:  several short stories, titles unrelated to the one previous, some stories shorter while others are just shy of novella length.  What I found to be utterly brilliant about this was how the stories were all related.  Sometimes it was just a character from one being mentioned in another, while in others it was someone you would think of as a main character in one then being given their own story.  Each short story was very particular and careful with the point of view and remained amazingly faithful to the psychology of each character.  Yes, I kid you not, there is psychology involved in these vignettes.

Characters were fully developed, back story was given in many cases, and the perversions were interesting- and, uh, sometimes wholly disturbing.  One has to get past the first couple stories for they end on notes leaving the reader wondering if the author was an advocate for sexual openness and experimentation or if she thinks it’s merely the symptom of something altogether more disturbing.  Basically, I got to the end of the first two stories and I felt the look of disgust and horror etched onto my face.  They made sense, were not overly done and lacked all the sensational over the top, detail oriented, gratuitous orgies of words so prevalent in books of similar premise that are written today.  Of course the author is graphic, anatomically correct terms are used, but it is the difference between looking at a painting by Georgia O’Keefe vs. pictures from Hustler.

An excerpt from the story called “Elena” and depicts the first true meeting of Elena and Pierre:

Apart from his eyes, this man was aristocratic.  His movements were youthful and innocent.  He swayed as he walked, as though he were a little drunk.  All his strength centered in the glance he gave Elena, and then he smiled innocently, easily, and walked on.  Elena was stopped by the glance and almost angered by the boldness of it.  But his youthful smile dissolved the mordant effect of the eyes and left her with feelings she could not clarify.  She turned back.

The prose is really quite impressive in that it encompasses great detail and action without harping.  My only true complaint, beyond those rather unpleasant moments mentioned above, is the over use of the word voluptuous.  It isn’t horrible but there are a few pages where I began rolling my eyes.

If you’re intrigued by the notion of erotica being literary, as I was, I would strongly encourage you to go forth and peruse this book.  I also think many who write anything explicitly enough to be considered erotic to check this out.  Anais Nin, in my opinion, had a knack and a gift.

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans

This book, admittedly, was something thrust upon me by my husband.  After all the wretchedly depressing books I’ve read lately I had remarked I needed something fun and entertaining but not insipid, nor sugary sweet.  And so I got this 136 page book tossed at me with nothing more of an explanation than, “It’s fun, witty, intelligent and a very quick read.”  Master salesman that he is I took it to heart and finished it in a matter of days.

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans by Luis Fernando Verissimo is a short and intriguing little book that begins with a story of a man and his hero.   Our narrator is the fictional character called Vogelstein and he takes us on a journey from Porto Alegre to Buenos Aires.  He is traveling, not solely to meet up with the Israfel Society to discuss Poe, but in the vain hope of seeing his hero- Borges.

The tale begins innocently enough as, I suppose, many murder mysteries do.  We learn of Vogelstein’s life, beginning with the memories of his mother giving him into the care of his aunt so she might stay in Germany in the care and protection of her lover, an officer of the Reich.  Unfortunately she wound up abandoned by the officer and so met her demise thus leaving our story teller without birth parents.  The beauty of this particular book is in the genius of its craftsmanship.  It continuously feels as though it’s all happening in the now but it is, in actuality, being relayed through a letter to Borges reconstructing the whole affair from the conference.

The murder is of a catankerous old man named Rotkopf who fails to endear himself to everyone at the conference.  Although I must admit the character hardly seems like the type to have even endeavored to do such a thing as he quite intentionally set out to discredit at least one of the attendees in quite a public fashion.  Vogelstein then brings us through that fateful evening of accompanying the man to his hotel room, having drinks together and then, subsequently, finding the man dead a few hours later after a cryptic phone call.

While that is of course the event the entire plot rests upon the investigation made by the intellectuals, in this case Vogelstein and Borges, is what pulls the reader in.  Take this passage for example (and, please, bear with me- it’s a bit longer of a passage than I normally include in reviews):

“…Apparently there’s a double of myself loose in Buenos Aires.  It’s one of the myths people have invented about me.  The last time I could see myself clearly in the mirror, my image had fled, in order to save itself from my decline.  Friends tell me that they sometimes see my double in the street, and that he has very acute eyesight, so acute that he can see the craters on the Moon without the aid of a telescope, but that he lacks imagination.  It must be some kind of standard compensation awarded only to authors, imagination instead of sight. Think of Joyce.” (Borges)

“And Homer.” (Vogelstein)

“And Akhenaten.”

“Was Akhenaten blind?”

“He ended up blind.  They say he mutiliated himself after some tale of incest and guilt, like Oedipus.  It seems the Egyptians were in the habit of being Greeks before their time, especially the pharaohs.”

“But Akhenaten wasn’t a writer.”

“He was the one who thought up monotheism and invented God.  He might not have been a writer, but he had a gift for creating good characters…”

The whole book is written with dialogue of this style.  It isn’t all about religion, deities or other such controversial subject matters but it is unexpectedly existential in scope with amazing literary references about Poe, Lovecraft and the Necronomicon.  How that all relates to solving the murder I’ll leave up to you to ascertain when you read the book but, suffice it to say, all of these conversations matter.

I can’t recommend the book enough.  It was not emotionally moving, or even gripping in the traditional sense, but it was brilliantly clever and a very fun read.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I had never heard of this book until a friend of mine had kindly sent it to me as a surprise Christmas present in early December.  At the time I was knee deep in “The Road” waiting to dip my toes gently into the pool of Lahiri’s collection of short stories and so set it aside with the promise to both myself and my friend I would read Barbery’s second novel immediately afterward (library books always get priority on the timeline!).  I did.  And boy am I glad.

The book is divided into sections and within those sections there are titled chapters that fluctuate between the points of view of the protagonists.   The concierge, Madame Michele, seems to be the main person upon whom the story pivots while the other story teller is an adolescent girl named Paloma.

Madame Renee Michele is a closet art fanatic.  In fact, it isn’t just the pleasure she takes in the reading of literature she speaks of, but also in keeping all the residents of 7 rue de Grenelle unaware of her love of arts and philosophy.  Initially it seems to be a game to our dear heroine but as the story progresses we find a deeper, more poignant reason for her reluctance at outing herself. In truth it is, aside from all the other intellectual meanderings of Barbery, the true axis of the story.  Take this excerpt, in which our concierge has just used the facilities at a friend’s home, as an example of both the character’s intellect as well as the wit of our author:

Did I press the wrong buttone, misjudging the amount produced-such presumptuousness, such pride, Renee, two lotus flowers for such a ridiculous contribution-and consequently I am being punished by the earsplitting thunder of divine justice?  Am I guilty of overindulging-of luxuriating-in the voluptuousness of the act in a place that inspires voluptuousness, when we should actually think of it as impure?  Did I succumb to envy in coveting this princely asswipe, and have therefore been roundly reminded of my deadly sin?

The second character, Paloma, is a suicidal twelve year old child born to a wealthy family.  It isn’t that she’s distraught and heart broken, but rather seems motivated to kill herself simply because she doesn’t want to wind up in the same hellish trap of existence she sees all adults in  her life residing in.  A very intelligent girl whose narrative portions of the story are fun, clever, witty and eventually even moving.

Both characters move along a time line and, for most of the story, are living a paralleled existence until the world tips ever so slightly and they are brought together.  The relationship doesn’t set off any great flashes indicating how earth shattering it is, but instead is wrought beautifully and genuinely as it would have happened in life.  Just a meeting- and one that changes everything.

The read is incredibly cerebral for the most part, with challenging words and ideas sure to push the vernacular of even some of the most learned fiction readers; its prose is long and elegant with sweeping sentences spanning almost an entire paragraph in it of itself.  However, they’re all brilliantly coherent with words I couldn’t even fathom being arranged in a different manner.  The complaint I do have, however, is due to the astoundingly head centered story and lack of physical sensation.  Seldom do I feel grounded in the scenery except for when the concierge speaks of Tolstoy’s tales nor do I truly feel for the characters.

It’s a remarkable read that just might hearten many a reader bogged down by some deeper and darker works currently in the market.  The tale is whimsical, fun, engaging and very well-written with distinctly different voices for both our protagonists.  I just wish my heart had been a bit more involved throughout the story than it was.  Still, I heartily recommend this book for everything it is and the conversation of what it wasn’t doesn’t detract from that.  At all.