Various Miracles

This book is what it means to realize that the human experience is shared and connects.  Carol Shields is the perfect writer to make this happen.  Her collection of short stories in “Various Miracles”  is exactly that:  taking what is common and mundane, taking things everyone does, and opening up the small miracle of what these commonplace things really are in our lives.  I laughed at these stories, usually quietly.  Most of the time, I nodded in recognition.  Some fleeting emotion would be captured in a sentence, and I felt myself transported back to particular events in my life.  And it’s in the recognition of these feelings that one comes to see how the human experience is so precise and so broad at the same time:  what is felt by one person at a certain time can be felt by so many. And what is felt as a human experience by one person at one time affects humanity before and after, forever.  If you did or did not open that letter you received, what would happen, how would it change the course of your life, or of the lives connected to yours that you don’t even know are connected?  And what happens to your understanding of your circumstances when you read a passage that you relate to, where it stops you and you think “Yes!  That’s what I felt at that time in my life, and I didn’t know it.”? How does it affect your self-awareness now?

Carol Shields had this gift in her writing; she made the common seem so private and unique (which it is), while at the same time giving it the full measure of being part of something that all human beings share:  loss of love, love found, contentment with life, disappointment and bitterness.  In this particular collection of stories, Carol Shields puts the finger on those feelings and emotions that lead up to the big deals in our lives, those that we are usually unaware of having, or that we cannot put into words ourselves.

There were a few stories in this collection that I didn’t fully appreciate or get the gist of, and this is my second reading of this book.  I can only surmise that on the third reading of it in a few years, I will have gained more life experience, and will be able to fully appreciate the nuances of those stories, just as I have gained much by reading this book again several years after I originally read it.  I can relate, I’ve had different experiences since then, some regrettable, some joyous.  Reading “Various Miracles” the second time around has given me a deeper appreciation of my own common and mundane life, and that this is in fact, how I want to live my life, in commonplace, in mundanity, in simple joys and sorrows, much like Nigel and Jane in the last story, entitled “Others”.

For me, this is the magic of Carol Shields, the wisdom of her short-story writing.  She leaves me pondering, she extends that thread of recognition from one person to another, from one time and place to another.  It’s a comfort and a reassurance that she opens up in her writing, that we are all connected and are experiencing the same things in our own way, but the same things nonetheless.  And we are never as alone as we think we are.

Various Miracles   by Carol Shields

Vintage Canada  1985    201 pages

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The Paris Wife

I don’t read romance novels.  Well, not the Harlequin Romance types, anyways.  I did when I was a teenager.  In fact, my very first romance novel was “The Promise”  by Danielle Steele given to me by my sister when I was fourteen.  As I entered young adulthood, though, romance novels gave way to fiction that wasn’t quite so…..romantic.  I then went through a feminist phase, where anything remotely connected to romance was shunned (at least, I took it seriously enough to mean that romance & equality don’t make good bedfellows, or bedgals….whatever).  The nineties came and went, and my taste in books stayed the course with literary fiction and biographies, mostly.  With the new millenium, I explored lots of short stories and political writings, and fiction that reflected my own life:  divorce, parenthood, death.   I shied away from romantic literature, even classical romantic literature, pretensiously feeling it was an insult to my intelligence (Ha!).   The truth of the matter is that, as beautiful and ephemeral as romance is, somewhere along the line someone gets hurt.   Hurting is hard enough in real life, do I really want to read about fictional heartaches too? 

Yes.  I do.  Not syrupy bodice-rippers, but honest-to-goodness romantic fiction.  And “The Paris Wife” is a doozy of a heartbreaker.  This is the down-to-earth historical account of the life of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, a life lived mostly in Paris during the Roaring Twenties.   It’s public record that Ernest left Hadley for someone else.  Too busy listening to others tell him that she was holding him back as a writer.  Too selfish tending to his inner urges as a womanizer and wanting it all:  writing career, wife, children, mistress.   It’s also common knowledge that Hadley was Ernest Hemingway’s greatest love. 

Beautifully written in Hadley’s voice, I discovered an Ernest Hemingway that I had previously not had too much interest in, or understanding of.   Reading “The Paris Wife” I felt about Hemingway some of what Hadley must have surely felt for this man.  There was love and hate and everything in between.   I have not read any of Ernest Hemingway’s books, I suppose I should, as I’m passing on these thoughts about a man whose body of work I don’t know much about.  Especially since he is one of America’s most revered writers.   I visited the author’s website after reading the book, because I wanted to know  how she came about all the details.  In her words, Paula McLain states that the dialogue in the book is fictionalized, but the timeline and events are as close to the actual happenings as possible.  And yet….

Reading “The Paris Wife”, written in Hadley’s voice, you feel that maybe this imagined dialogue would not be so far from the truth.  I came away feeling I could have been friends with Hadley, and not the betraying kind either.   She lived her life, her whole life, with grace and dignity and an understated passion that this world could use so much more of.   I feel sad for Hadley, and although I sometimes loathed Ernest, I often felt him as more human in this story than in any biography or documentary that I’ve read or seen of him.  I think Hadley brought parts of him to the surface that would never otherwise have come into being.   Truth be told,  I ended up feeling sorry for Hemingway, for not having been able to withstand outside pressures, for being weak and making a disastrous choice.  I was rooting for them to make it work, knowing that it never would. 

Their life was complex, and the time in history in which they lived marked the emergence of very different ideologies and “lifestyle” choices regarding couples and marriage.  Hadley endured more than any wife should.  But their life was very much like any couple’s life, full of joy and sorrows, struggles that made them stronger and daily blessings that erased any other blight that came their way.  Like most couples, they woke every morning with the decision to love each other that day.  By all accounts she loved Ernest, and he loved her back.  She loved him for who he was and did not feign interest in his pursuits just to humour him, as others did; she really was his champion and most of all, she understood what made him tick.  She gave him all that he needed to accomplish his work:  support, friendship, laughter, distance, devotion, understanding, closeness when he gave signs of being homesick.  She accompanied him to Spain on several occasions to watch the bullfights….and she understood his passion for it!  I don’t know if I could genuinely support and understand this tradition, myself.  Yet she did.   When others in Ernest’s life would be turned off by the spectacle, or would only pay pretentious lip service to Ernest’s passionate explanations of the bullfighting rituals in hopes of gaining some sexual advantage, Hadley was the real deal.  

And yet, he traded his life with Hadley for an affair that whittled down to nothing as quickly as it began, with a woman who dealt Hadley the ultimate betrayal.   Why would someone walk away from a soulmate for the sake of fame?  What if Ernest had remained with Hadley and they had grown old together?  He would still have been the great writer that he was destined to be.   And he might have been around longer than he was, because in his own words, written to Hadley in 1926, she was “the best and truest and loveliest person that I have ever known.” 

Of course, I speculate.  But after reading “The Paris Wife”, I’m left wondering……. 

I try not to read too many book reviews before I read a book (which is kind of funny, considering what this blog is for), only because it usually colours my opinions and my enjoyment of the book in question.  From what I gather, though, there has been some criticism of Paula McLain’s portrayal of Hadley as a woman who just stood by and did nothing to prevent the inevitable.  To those who feel Hadley was Ernest’s doormat, I think it’s a shame they feel this way, because clearly she was a strong person in her own right, struggling to create her life as she saw fit.  And who can know or admonish someone for leading the life they have led without walking in their shoes?  There are so many things to take into context, such as the period in history, mores of the time, women’s and men’s roles in society,  upbringing, class affiliations, cultural customs, individual personalities, and on and on.  When we fail to put things into context, we cheat ourselves not only of having our minds expanded, and missing out on great stories, but we fall into the trap of political correctness and censorship. 

This is a tragic, romantic, often erotic love story, and the author has written it in a voice where you can sense the promise of devotion and love, even if you know that the outcome is anything but a happy ending.   My husband is a great admirer of Hemingway’s accomplishments and legendary life.  I would question him about why Ernest Hemingway is such a fascinating study (because frankly, I just wasn’t getting it…..perhaps it’s a male thing).   Now I will be putting some Hemingway on my reading list, as this book has heightened my interest in the man as a writer.  I’ll probably start with  “A Moveable Feast”  for obvious reasons.  Any good book should whet your appetite for more knowledge.  “The Paris Wife”  has done that for me, and more. 

The more being that the romance between Hadley and Ernest developed through their letters to each other.  They set off the sparks and lit fires with their hearts and words well before the physical attraction and chemistry worked its own magic.   This surely must have sustained Ernest Hemingway in his later years, as it’s known that he had kept all of the letters that Hadley had written to him.  At least I like to think that it brought him comfort.  I love where the exchange of letters is the basis of a courtship, as this is how my husband and I courted each other and fell in love, through old-fashioned handwritten letters, letters that travelled thousands of miles between Florida and northern Ontario.   I guess I am a romantic after all……

The Paris Wife     by Paula McLain  

Bond Street Books  2011     320 pages

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

As I write this post, I’m listening to Haruki Murakami’s music on his website.  Very cool.  Set it up on your computer as you read through my review.  Very cool.

Haruki Murakami is one of the MOST interesting writers I have ever read.  He is a master-gatherer of such subtle powers that it surprises you as you read his narratives.  Modern life, historical events, reality, dreams, and the human condition all come together in his stories in ways that I haven’t yet encountered in another writer.  I’ve come to know of Mr. Murakami, one of Japan’s greatest writers of postmodern literature, through a book-loving friend, who gave me a copy of Kafka on the Shore a few years back.   If Kafka on the Shore was my introduction to Mr. Murakami (and yes, I must refer to him as Mister, as a sign of respect), then The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is my “Nice-To-Meet-You” conversation with him following the introduction. 

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru Okada, who goes through the life-crushing experience of having his wife leave him.  But what he lives through isn’t your usual boo-hoo fest.  Through Mr. Okada’s solitude, loneliness, and introspection after the separation, several characters materialize in his life, each with the purpose of  sending him on a search for his wife Kumiko.  The characters that come to be go back and forth between the dream world and reality, between the past and the present, so that when you reach the end, you are left wondering what events and characters were real and what were part of Toru Okada’s dreams and/or imagination.  

The loneliness of a person are acutely captured by Mr. Murakami; if you’ve ever suffered from loneliness, you will be nodding your head as you read this story, and you’ll marvel at how such a personal and individual emotion is so perfectly expressed by someone who doesn’t know you and lives half-way across the world and is part of a completely different culture than your own.  And even more remarkable is the aloneness  (which is different from loneliness) that you can actually feel as you accompany Mr. Okada through his bizarre odyssey, through Lieutenant Mamiya’s life story, through weird little May Kasahara’s adventures (“Not being bored means not having to think about a lot of stupid stuff.”).  And let’s not forget the Kano sisters.

 Mr. Murakami interlaces the threads of Lieutenant Mamyia, May Kasahara, Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka, Malta and Creta Kano, and of course Noboru Wataya into Toru Okada’s present predicament, adding the Hanging House, the well, and Room 208  as near-living characters themselves.  The passages of the well were fantabulous.  I read Chapters 12 and 13 early on a Sunday morning while everyone else in the house was sleeping, and I was riveted. 

Toru Okada is a protaganist that you can genuinely feel for as he searches for his Kumiko (and more importantly for his purpose in life), you want to be there for him as he trips and stumbles, you cheer for him when he tells the story of the monkeys of the shitty island to Noboru Wataya.  You want him to come out on top in the end.   As I said, Mr. Murakami is a master at bringing together so many dark elements, tragic events, difficult emotions, humour and art; he makes it seem as easy as inhaling oxygen.  

One of my favourite quotes of the book is by May Kasahara as she reveals bit by bit more of herself to Mr. Okada, whom she’s nick-named Mr. Wind-Up Bird:  “What I’d really like to do is find a way to communicate that feeling to another person.  But I can’t seem to do it.   They just don’t get it.  Of course, the problem could be that I’m not explaining it very well, but I think it’s because they’re not listening very well.”  

This is a dream journey through time and space (not science-fiction space), with alot of uncomfortable passages to shake up your reality.    

Bravo, Mr. Murakami.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle   by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin,  First Vintage International Edition 1998   607 pages

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Anna Karenina

This was a long story.  With a  lot of characters with long Russian names.   Most would take me too long to pronounce while reading them, so mostly I would stick with reading just the character’s first name.  Sometimes I’d try my hand at it and say the names out loud, to get a better feel of how it should sound, because there were good reasons why Tolstoy would sometimes refer to a character using different names, which is explained in the List of Principal Characters in the book. 

So this was a long story.  With long paragraphs of long details about farming in Russia in the 19th century, and long explanations of the workings of government during the Tsar’s reign.  But Tolstoy cleverly entices you into the story with the family dramas before hitting you with his thought patterns and opinions on what was being debated in his day.   He was putting forth his controversial ideas, ideals and idealisms camouflaged within this great novel, which is quite an accomplishment given the world he lived in at the time he wrote it (1870s).   After having read this book, I see how it would make a great novel to study, as there are so many aspects to this book that can be delved into:  19th century politics, Russian mores, class distinctions, family relationships, love, Christianity, revenge, building a better society.  But for the purposes of this review, I’ll stick to my impressions of the human drama of this novel, all the while looking  forward to expanding my knowledge of Russian history and of Tolstoy’s life in particular.

So let me start this off by saying that I didn’t like Anna.  I kept trying to warm up to her, to feel sorry for her, to give her my support.  But I couldn’t.  She almost had me when Tolstoy mentioned that she was writing during her exile from society, and I thought “A-ha! She might be a kindred spirit after all!”  But that was short-lived.  When she jumped in front of the train, I didn’t feel horror or sadness or pity. 

I thought “Oh well, you made this choice, Anna.  You left your son, YOUR CHILD, and your husband who was a good man but you couldn’t stand the sight of him and therefore hated him,  so you left them both to have a fling.  And it wasn’t long before you were into that fling that you began to hate the man you were flinging with, too.  You’re a little flaky, Anna, and alot selfish.  I tried to understand that you lived in another century, and that things back then were different for women, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that you deliberately chose to have a few passions with a Russian hottie over sharing  a lifetime with your child.  So maybe your husband wasn’t all you thought he should be, and knowing that your options were very limited,  had I been in your shoes with the high gracefully-curved French heels, I would’ve said to myself:  Suck it up, Buttercup.

In fact, that’s what I found myself saying to you throughout the story.    You were in the grips of jealous turmoil at the thought that your lover was having an affair with another woman (which he wasn’t), yet you found it perfectly and socially acceptable to shamelessly flirt with the man who married your lover’s rejected fiancée.  (Are you confused yet?)  So when you launched into yet another drama-queen binge and thought you’d seek revenge on your disenchanted yet faithful lover by jumping in front of a train, I heard a voice say “Yessss!  The drama queen is dead!”   And that voice was mine. 

After all was said and done, I couldn’t have cared less about Anna and her lover, Count Vronsky.  And from what I gathered after her death, neither did any of the other characters, except maybe for Vronsky himself.  However, Tolstoy didn’t really go into the impact her death had on everybody else, which was kind of surprising being as the novel is centered on the choices she makes.  But it seems that the characters wanted to carry on with their lives, that this was just an event that most people wanted to forget.  Maybe that was Tolstoy’s message. 

In many ways, this book was alot of firsts for me:  first book with so many pages, first real classical book, first book read by Tolstoy, first book read that was written in the 1800s.  And I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing.  Tolstoy has a wry sense of humour, and I was so pleased with myself when I would laugh at a passage and realize that Tolstoy meant it to be funny!  He’s also pretty in tune with a woman’s deep feelings about motherhood, with women’s right to education, things that I have a hard time picturing him thinking about, for some reason.  When I look at pictures of Tolstoy, I see a very stern and serious long-bearded man, and I can’t reconcile that man with the positive ideals of womanhood that he puts forth in Anna Karenina.  I’m expecting an oppressive and patriarchal stance, especially considering the issues of divorce, faith, and woman’s place.  But no.  From the glimpses I’ve had of his life, besides being a national Russian treasure, he was a family man, deeply passionate, who’s own story rivals any novel that he’s written.  Maybe because so much of himself finds its way into his writing.

Many scholars study this novel for years, much has been written about it and about its author, and so I feel a little humbled and small in writing a review of Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy is not your average author, and I was intimidated reading anything that he wrote.  He’s a national hero in his country, and has lived a life that is unquestionably very diverse. 

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would.  I loved the storyline with Levin and Kitty, and to me that’s who the main characters were.  Their courtship, the skating scene, their coming together, their heartaches, the pageantry of their wedding, their life together as a couple, as partners (because one gets the sense that Kitty and Levin are partners in love and life, that this is not a marriage of convenience), their fears and doubts, their becoming parents, all of this made reading about selfish Anna bearable.  I found myself very drawn to Kitty and Levin, to Anna’s forgotten husband, Alexei, to Sergei and Varenka and their marriage-proposal scene (after reading that scene, I literally slammed the book down – which made alot of noise because it weighs 10 pounds, I’m sure – and I said out loud:  “Arrgghhh!!”).

Some opinions and ideals in the book sometimes went over my head, due to my narrow understanding of Russian politics, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything because of it.  I figure I’ll leave those bits to scholars and those more erudite than myself to debate.   

Tolstoy is not afraid to delve into a character’s thoughts and inner being, and tells us the entire thought process that he or she goes through.   Horse racing actually becomes interesting when you walk with Count Vronsky during the day of the race.  You feel for Alexei as he paces his room, pondering Anna’s betrayal, and how he must deal with it.  You enter Anna’s madness as she overthinks her lover’s perceived infidelities and her own insecurities.  Levin’s musings on farming life and on being a husband and father, and his big thoughts on the meaning of Life are entered into by Tolstoy with no restraints.  Kitty’s coming of age, Anna’s justifications of her adultery, all this is given much space and time to unfold.  You feel like there is no hurry, all will be revealed in good time.  For me, this is Tolstoy’s mark with this book:  it’s as if he wrote it in a deliberate way, wanting to project his many opinions and thoughts that he felt were important through a variety of likeable characters, who were not doing anything extraordinary, just living their daily lives, doing daily mundane things.  But as the opening line suggests, the extraordinary is sometimes found in the mundane:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I’m certain that there are many reviews of Anna Karenina out there that are much more focused on the societal aspects and on its literary merits, and can give a much broader and deeper perspective than I can.  It would be an interesting book to study and pick apart, for certain.  Just the historical context alone is fodder enough to last a long time.  Did I say it was a long book? 

I look forward to seeing the screen adaptations (one from 1935 starring Greta Garbo, and one from 1997 with Sophie Marceau), if only to embellish my imagination a little.  Although I find Tolstoy’s writing very descriptive in many ways, I couldn’t always imagine what the scenery looked like, or what people were wearing.  I would sometimes sneak over to watch trailers of the films, or find pictures of that period, just to get a better sense of the times.  Gotta love the Internet! 

It was curious to see that newspapers back then were thought of much in the same way that newspapers today are viewed:  run by elite opinionated self-servers.

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Although I’m not giving Anna Karenina The Golden Beech Tree Award, it’s a book worth reading (and maybe re-reading if ever I’ve got another 3 weeks where I’m not busy).  It’s one of those books that opens you up to another time that had many significant events that ended up shaping the world we live in now. 

Anna Karenina by Count Leo Tolstoy  

2000 translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky   published by the Penguin Group   838 pages

Posted in Fiction, From the Written to the Spoken: Books That Became Movies | 3 Comments

A New Year’s Challenge

Happy New Year and may your blessings in 2011 be all that you need!

I’m currently in the throes of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and I look forward to giving you my impressions of this very thick book in a few weeks.

This morning, though, I’m wanting to talk to you about Haruki Murakami, THE modern Japanese author before which all others must bow. I first came to know Murakami’s work through a good friend, who gave me “Kafka by the Shore”. I enjoy Japanese art and culture, and am always attracted to Japanese films, but this was the first time I read a book by any Japanese writer. Having never heard of Haruki Murakami before, I was happily surprised to see more than one of his novels on the shelf during a book-browsing expedition a few weeks later.   I don’t mean to sound like a book-snob when I say that, but you know how it is:  you think you have a good take on the world, you’re not a know-it-all, but you know what you know, and then all of a sudden you come upon something new, and it’s as if you’ve been in a desert and you’re cresting a dune and before you lies a city of gold with riches beyond anything you could come up with in your miniscule imagination.  It’s discovering that there’s a whole world out there, just waiting….. Actually, being amazed at how there’s a whole world out there is something I get thumped on the head with on a regular basis, and I’m kinda happy about that.  It signals to me that I’m still the curious kid I’ve always been, that my serious live-life-by-the-rules nature is kept in balance. 

I read “Kafka on the Shore”, but I did it in a stop-and-start way which I’ll explain when I post my review of the book at the Beech Tree sometime this year. Even though I read the book in 2009, I am going to read it again in 2011, because the gauntlet has been thrown down!   The good people over here http://murakamichallenge.blogspot.com/  have thrown out a fun and friendly challenge to everybody and anybody, whether you’ve read Murakami, or whether you’ve never heard of him before.   So depending on where you are in the Murakami-spectrum, this just might feel like you’re in the desert and there’s that city of gold.  Or you may feel like you’ve just ran into an old friend and decide to spend the rest of the day reminiscing.  I’m sort of in between:   eager to uncover more of Murakami’s genius, but wanting to slowly drink it all in.  This is the wonderful thing about this challenge, it’s not a race, it’s more like an archeological dig of modern literature.    

There are different levels of participation for this reading challenge, ranging from reading one of his books (which gives you the distinction of being Hajime, the Japanese word for begin) to reading all of his books that are available in your preferred language (which will denote you as SuperFrog!) Personally, I’m shooting for the SuperFrog rank, so I better get hopping! (I know, that’s a lame pun, but better to get my silliness out of my system early in the new year).   Knowing myself, I know that I’ll be pleased as punch with any rank I can achieve at the end of the year….Hajime or SuperFrog, it’s all about discovering. 

On that note, I hope you browse the link to the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge and most of all, I hope you find a quiet place and some time today to lose yourself in a book, any book.  It’s always better to give, so give yourself that gift today.

Chantal

Posted in Reading Challenge | 2 Comments

In The Kitchen

This is the story of what happens to a man with no backbone when faced with tough choices in life that appear to be no-brainers to the rest of us:  do I sleep with the malnourished hotel porter girl who may/may not be a victim of human trafficking, or do I remain true to my girlfriend of several years who by all accounts is way more intelligent and too beautiful and talented for the likes of a sod like me?  I think I’ll sleep with the underfed & angry girl, yeah, that’s a good choice.   Do I call my ageing father who may be dying and who did the best he could for me during his life, or do I put it off a few more weeks and hope he doesn’t die in the meantime?  I think I’ll put it off again and do something much more constructive, like chop some cilantro, yeah, that’s a good choice.    

It took me a while to feel cozywarmfuzzy in Monica Ali’s In The Kitchen.   The main character, Gabriel, is a wishy-washy, can’t-get-his-act-together guy who acts like the world has wronged him, and who obsesses as to why he can’t remember what ignited his passion for cooking (as if uncovering this obsession will unlock the secrets to his malaise). 

As he is the protagonist, I should be feeling empathy for this Gabriel.  But no.  We all make bad choices, decisions we regret, but this character just didn’t know when he had a good thing going.  Like his faithful girlfriend.  Like his career as an executive chef in a fancy-shmancy London hotel.  Like co-workers who treat him with respect, and whom he doesn’t return the favour most of the time.  Like family who forgive him his trespasses, even when he continues to trespass against them. 

Lena, the waif porter girl with no home, has somehow become an obsession for Gabriel, but this is never really elaborated on;  I couldn’t feel why he was so enamored with Lena, I couldn’t see the attraction.  And it’s his infatuation with this “eerily attractive young woman”  that is the basis for all that Gabriel does in the book, all the bad decisions that he makes that he thinks are noble and good, that bring him to the brink of disaster.  How does seeing a stranger one time make you feel that you are now her knight in shining armor, charging to her rescue on your white Aga stove?  And he sleeps with her.  Even though he has a bonafide girlfriend with whom he feels he might have a good future.  He keeps trying to justify his infidelity with this unknown force that attracts him to Lena, who comes across as sullen, moody, angry and not very hygienic.  She doesn’t elicit the empathy of the reader as she should, given her history.   Every predicament that Gabriel finds himself in elicits a “See? I told you so!” response. 

In the first few pages, there were too many characters introduced, and for me, I had a hard time keeping track of who was who In The Kitchen……some characters blended into each other, especially the hotel managers and assistants. 

I like when a writer weaves social issues in the plot.  But with this book, it felt more like Ali was trying to weave a plot in amongst the social issues; the result is that the plot is weak and hardly gripping.  It felt more like the characters were used to make a social commentary, to make too many social commentaries in ways that were too obvious.   One character, a politician, seemed like his statements were cut and pasted from government pamphlets; they came across like platitudes and rhetoric, instead of feeling like something an actual person might say.  

I couldn’t decide what kind of story I was reading.  It’s as if it began as a suspense or thriller and didn’t know where to go from there, and so it morphed into  a failed love story, then into a male existential angst navel-gazing memoir.  There are some good parts that make you think that it’s going to get good now if you just keep reading…..  But it doesn’t……a suspenseful moment or potentially interesting twist is quickly left to fall flat.

The parts I enjoyed the most were scenes with Gabriel’s father, with his grandmother, and his sister.   Gabriel’s grandmother seems to be the only person in his life for whom he doesn’t hold anything against.  He does come to an understanding in the end, but the getting there is annoying and Gabriel comes across as  self-centered instead of introspective.

This was not a book that I couldn’t wait to read; most of the time, I forced myself to read it, because I just can’t stand starting a book and not finishing it, no matter how much I don’t like it.  But just when I thought that I couldn’t stand the (lack of) heat in this kitchen and I was ready to bail, the book started cooking in the last 60 pages, regrettably.  Or maybe not regrettably.  It sort of redeemed itself I guess.  Monica Ali ended her story in a good way, and for that I felt a little more content and full after I was done In The Kitchen.

In The Kitchen by Monica Ali  2009  Scribner  436 pages

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Sometimes, when I read a book, I write in it.  In pencil.   As sacrilegous as that may sound, I don’t care.   I love going back to a book I’ve read and re-reading passages that I underlined, margin  notes that I left, and references to what was going on in my life at that time where I drew parallels with the story line or characters in the book.  When I read “The Elegance of the  Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery, I was in scribble-heaven, and I filled it in with my penciled notes and observations, underlining favourite passages, and words I had to look up in my dictionary (carmine, incunabulum, kolkhoz……among several more).   If you enjoy learning, this book is for you.  For me, what’s the point of reading a book if I’m not going to be stimulated and want to know more about what the writer is revealing?  It’s like discovering that your  lover, like God,  is in the details, and the more you know, the more you want to know.  Same deal with reading something that you feel is great: the more you read it, the more you want to know about the characters, the time period, the physical setting, the food, the emotions, the writer, and on and on.  What you’re reading doesn’t have to be great to anyone else, just to you.  

With its philosophical reflections acting as the hub around which the characters come alive,  questions are asked (“What is an aristocrat?”), answers are sometimes given (“A woman who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it.”), and sometimes there is no answer to a question (“….what is it that is so good about chocolate?”).  Nevertheless,  you are left in ponderance of your own life and mortality and congruence (“How can you exist if you don’t know where you are?”).   I also made notes in the margins to remind myself to look up recipes for madeleines and to go see on YouTube what a  Haka is, and to find out more about Japanese living spaces (“Sharing and reunion can occur without intrusion.  Life becomes a quiet stroll – whereas our life, in the homes we have, seems like nothing so much as a long series of intrusions.”  Renée, on Japanese sliding doors).

The story is of Renée, a middle-aged concierge of a grand building on rue de Grenelles in Paris, and of her observations of the building’s inhabitants.  Being a self-taught aficionado of all that is art, philosophy, music and Japanese culture, she quietly lives her life, while inside her passions stir and boil (a woman after my own heart).  One of the inhabitants, Paloma, is a precocious 12-year-old who writes in her journals and catalogues her Profound Thoughts while contemplating her demise.  Both are brought together by a new arrival at 7, rue de Grenelle, the distinguished Monsieur Ozu,  and they discover how their inconspicuousness is cause for quiet victories.

This is a book as much for your senses as for your mind.  After reading the passage where Renée and her friend, Manuela, indulge in their twice-a-week tea in Renée’s loge, I had to make “tuiles aux amandes“.   My husband & I ate them all in one evening, they were so good.  I was much entranced by this book, and reveled in the abundance of sights and tastes that underline the story.  I visited rue de Grenelle and Angelina’s Salon de Thé  on rue de Rivoli (thank you, Internet), I discovered new recipes and re-discovered a childhood favourite, Nuns’ Farts; in French, we say pètes de soeurs, and they are just as much fun to say in either language as they are to eat.   The still lifes of Chardin, the symphonies of Mahler, Tolstoy, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past……   This book is a dream book for those who read because they love words ( “….pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language.”  Paloma, Profound Thought No.10), for those who read to be transformed & for those who just love a good story.   And isn’t it always better when the characters share a part of you?  Isn’t it a small magical moment when a writer can portray characters who seem to have lived in you already?  

Muriel Barbery’s writing is certainly evocative of many emotions, and she does so with wit and humour to boot.   The layout of the book is genius, with Renée’s story in one font, and Paloma’s story in another, and her Profound Thoughts in yet another font.  After reading the book, I went back to it later and read only Paloma’s entries of her Profound Thoughts…..it was like reading a whole new book. 

The true elegance of this hedgehog is the underlying quiet triumph of the human spirit that meanders through the book, it’s the friendships that weave themselves in patterns as intricate and delicate as a crisp dark chocolate florentine, it’s the beauty of opening oneself to another, much like a camellia in winter.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery  2006  Europa Editions  325 pages

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