I'll read anything as long as it's a good yarn. During a recent vacation, I tore through a potboiler about a jogger attacked by a genetically altered polar bear. I wouldn't recommend it. Then I read an adventure novel from a dollar store. The experience supports the adage, “You get what you pay for.”
But on the same trip I discovered The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Europa, 2006.) Translated from the original French by Alison Anderson, the novel presents two characters whose needs and wants converge.
Stout, ugly Renee is a concierge in a Parisian hotel where she poses as a witless soap opera fan. But behind closed doors, she's addicted to art, music, philosophy, and Japanese culture. She hides her passions until a subtle slip involving two cats and Anna Karenina reveals her secret.
The second major character is a resident of the same hotel. Brilliant, twelve year-old Paloma observes adults and decides they all lead lives of quiet desperation. She resolves to end her life on her thirteenth birthday.
Sounds grim, but I often laughed out loud. It's funny. Each chapter advances the plot, and some offer marvelous nuggets about art and music.
Renee studies a still life by Pieter Claesz depicting a table set for a light meal of bread and oysters. A half-pared lemon shines on a silver plate.
“We cannot cease desiring, and this is our glory and our doom,” Renee reflects. “but when we gaze at a still life . . . we delight in its beauty . . . we find pleasure in the fact that there was no need for desire.”
“Art is emotion without desire,” she thinks.
Later, she listens to a recording of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. When she hears the bit at the death of Dido, she thinks this is the most stunning music on earth.
“There is a beauty in these sounds no animal cry can ever attain, a beauty born of the subversion of phonetic articulation and the transgression of the careful verbal language that ordinarily creates distinct sounds. Broken sounds, melting sounds.”
Such sounds break our defenses.
Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog brushes deep mysteries with a light touch. I loved it.
Forty years ago, I was crawling around in diapers when Neil Armstrong planted his flesh-and-blood foot on the moon. The MOON!
Well, I missed the whole thing. The historical significance of the event was beyond my comprehension. Consequently, the iconic image of the earth rising over the dusty moonscape never struck me as unusual or bizarre. Years later, when I was in my teens, fiction writer James Michener opened my eyes to the marvel of it all, the risks, and the fact that until they landed, the crew of Apollo 11 half-expected to sink into six feet of powdery dust.
“NASA never understood the need for a philosopher corps,” Wolfe writes. With all of its smarts, the American space program lacks a poet, someone able to spark enough general enthusiasm for building a bridge to the stars.
Such a philosopher would find his work cut out for him. My generation is hard to impress. When was the last time you were truly floored by a scientific discovery or piece of technology? We expect daily, small-scale marvels. Turn on the news. There they are.
The last time I felt fullblown wonder at a scientific advance was in 1992. I was sitting in front of a computer, and my husband was explaining the Internet terms “gopher,” “archie” and “veronica.” He punched the return key. A tiny green star whirled on the black screen.
“Your computer is making another computer in Denmark look something up,” he said. I hardly believed him. Then text appeared, in Danish, pre-Google, like primitive paintings on the cave walls near Lascaux, France.
Western New York native Stephanie Finney is studying in London. She had a funny thing happen. In her own words . . .
(post by Steph Finney)
Okay! Here's the story.
So yesterday, I went for my haircut, which was on Portobello Road.
It's no secret that I am an automobile nerd. While I drive a humble 11-year-old Subaru with 172,000 miles on it, I always envision myself maneuvering an eight-cylinder, two-seated, rear-engined supercar with something called "sodium-cooled exhaust valves" and carbon-fiber cupholders. Unfortunately these types of cars are expensive, and I play trombone and work for public radio--both admirable pursuits, but neither going to cover the cost of even one of the two dual-overhead camshafts I so desire. Now, if you play the piano, then it's a different story! No, you'll still be a starving artist, but at least you can play one of these:
In my hours of slaving over a hot computer every day, I came across two different views of how the Chinese are taking a liking to some of our art forms. Apparently Western classical music is huge there, and so is...completely ripping off the styling of Western automobiles.
What do British people do when they get really angry about their elected officials spending hideous amounts of taxpayer money on things like life-size statues of Winston Churchill made out of Legos? They write an opera, of course.