"The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This book was a pleasure to read, with gorgeous writing, wonderful characters and a surprising, but beautiful, ending. I loved it and truly hated to see it end. The title seems strange at first but becomes quite clear, and rather touching, later on.

Two characters tell their stories in alternating sections. Each is given her own font, a technique I probably wouldn't have missed had it not been there, but it actually did help to create their two distinct voices, smoothing out the change from one to the other.

Renee is the 54 year old concierge of a Paris apartment building, the apartments of which are owned by wealthy, haughty, dysfunctional individuals and families. Renee hides her intelligence and her love of literature from the residents because she feels she should play the part expected of someone in her low position. She has a good friend in Manuela Lopes, a maid for one of the apartment owners and who Renee describes as a true aristocrat. "What is an aristocrat? A woman who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it." Renee and Manuela meet every Tuesday for tea. "We laugh and converse....about one thing or another, in the calm space of an old friendship."

The other main character is 12 year old Paloma. She and her family - mother, father and sister - make one floor of the apartment building their home. Paloma is "an exceptionally intelligent child" trying to be normal and finding it "really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are".  Disenchanted with living as she has experienced it, she has a plan to end her life on her thirteenth birthday.

Their stories unfold gradually. They barely know each other in the beginning, but circumstances bring them together and they begin to understand each other, each eventually finding in the other a "kindred spirit".  Gently helping them both become who they really are is Monsieur Ozu, the middle aged man who recently bought, and - causing quite a stir among the residents - spent enormous sums of money renovating, his new home on the fourth floor.

There is a great deal of beauty and truth in this book, and it is gracefully written. From believing there is no meaning to life at all, Paloma learns to look for the "odd moment of beauty", the "always within never."  (That phrase "always within never" might not mean much till you read the book, but afterwards you'll probably find yourself thinking and saying it often.) Renee learns that there's no need to pretend to be anyone but who she is. She finds freedom in simply being...Renee.

I love Muriel Barbery's writing. It is clear, but not spare, and utterly authentic. It is emotional, but never wallows in emotion. It's refreshing to read an intelligent book that addresses, with great balance, both the head and the heart.

Those who read for the love of an intricate plot should know that this book is character driven with no dramatic conflicts or mysteries, no crimes or passionate love stories. The plot is in the evolving of Renee and Paloma's personalities, what they discover about themselves and each other, and how they reach for, and find, beauty in their lives.

I loved it, loved it, loved it. I'll read it again because, to quote a line from the book, "one really should over-indulge in things that are this good". I wonder if her other books could possibly be this good. I'd love to hear from anyone who has read them. And let me know what you thought about this one too. Did you love it? Hate it? Not care?

If you haven't read it yet, I enthusiastically recommend it!

"The Shadow of the Wind"

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Daniel is the young son of a seller of old and rare books in the city of Barcelona, 1945. One day his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he chooses a book that will be his to protect for the remainder of his years. The book he chooses is "The Shadow of the Wind" by Julian Carax.

 The book captivates him and he sets out to find others written by the same authour, a search that becomes a mystery when he is approached by a hooded stranger offering him any amount of money he desires in exchange for his book. Daniel soon discovers that every copy of this book, and every other book written by Carax, is being systematically destroyed.

As he attempts to solve the mystery surrounding "The Shadow of the Wind", he grows older, experiences love and loss, meets an odd and interesting assortment of people and gets drawn deeply into a story of jealousy, revenge, murder, insanity and a magnificent house that practically becomes another character. It takes him nearly 20 years to unravel the tangled threads that weave in and out of every strata of Barcelona society.

Zafon is a master storyteller. There are so many twists and turns and complications in this story that I had to glance back at previous chapters a few times to make sure I was keeping it all straight. The connections between characters and the way their histories overlap and intertwine makes for an incredible story the like of which I haven't seen in a while. I cannot fathom how he kept it all straight in his head while he wrote it. 

The overall tone of the book is a bit dark, but not too dark, just enough to create a good atmosphere for a mystery, a bit like the mood of a Victorian melodrama only much more involved and detailed. The writing is so good you forget all about it till you turn the last page and think "Wow". There are characters you'll like and root for, a few you'll feel sorry for, and at least one you'll quite enjoy hating. There's a good balance of positive and negative outlook so it never becomes either cheesy or depressing. "...the father she had lost when she was still too young - as happens with all good things in life" is balanced with "Come now...cheer up. Things have always been like this, here and everywhere else. The trouble is, there are some low moments, and when those strike close to home everything looks blacker."

This is a highly satisfying tale that offers the reader just about everything you'd ever want in a novel. It's a bit long at 487 pages but once you start it's hard to put down, so though it's not a quick read, it doesn't take too long to get through. I definitely recommend it.


Boundaries: When to say yes, and when to say no to take control of your life by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

I don't like to do a lot of this but I'm going to quote some of the blurbs on the back of the book simply because they describe this book better than I can.
  •  "Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. Boundaries define who we are and who we are not."
  • "Boundaries affect all areas of our lives: physical boundaries determine who may touch us, how and when; mental boundaries give us freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions; emotional boundaries help us deal with our own emotions and disengage us from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others; spiritual boundaries help us distinguish God's will from our own and give us renewed awe for our creator.
  • "Often Christians focus so on being loving and unselfish that they forget their own limitations. Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend offer biblically based insights into how to set healthy boundaries with our parents, spouses, children, friends, co-workers, and even ourselves."
The authours are clinical psychologists and directors of the Minirth Meir New Life Clinics in California. They are award winning authours, a speaking team, and co-hosts of a regular radio program, so they have the education and experience to be credible advisers on this vital and very personal topic.

I've read the book and am now working my way through a workbook that is available as well. You can still get a great deal from the book without doing the workbook so if your time is limited try that first. I find the workbook a little dry but I'm going to make myself complete it, mainly because this is an area of my emotional health that I've neglected and every relationship in my life has suffered as a result. But - it's never too late to change and I am determined to make this one, hopefully becoming more like the person I want to be in the process.

I don't think there's anybody who wouldn't benefit from reading this. It forces you to take a serious look at yourself and it makes you answer the hard questions - the ones we all avoid as much as possible. And yet it's not a heavy book or hard to read at all. It simply makes sense, and who couldn't use a little more sense in their life?

I absolutely recommend this one. If you do decide to read it, I'd love for you to come back and tell me a bit about your own experience with it. This is one of those few books that has made, and continues to make, an actual difference.

"Paris, My Sweet"

Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas

This is Amy Thomas' personal tug-of-war between Paris and New York. Paris won a few battles; New York eventually won the war. This book tells us about the battles Paris won and how the authour indulged her love of sweet things and tried to experience as much of Paris as she could in the time she was living there.  

Each chapter takes on a specific dessert: cupcakes, macarons, cookies, cakes, crumbles, hot chocolate, madeleines and muffins are all given equal attention. You get details of which bakeries sell them and the various kinds she was able to find and sample, then at the end of each chapter she tells you where her favourites can be found in both Paris and New York. At the end of the book is a list of addresses for every bakery mentioned.

Around all the talk of sugary goodness is the story of her life in the City of Light, how she got her job and her apartment, her visitors from back home and her visits there, the friends she made and her discoveries as she explored the different sections of the city. She paints quite a vivid picture of the most visited city on the planet.

There was really no way for me not to enjoy this book. It's set in Paris, her story is interesting and her writing is good. There's nothing to dislike. It's a fun, light read and one I'll probably read again when my craving for France and things French needs to be indulged. I definitely recommend it.

"The Face of a Stranger"

The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry

This is the first in Anne Perry's series of Victorian era mysteries featuring inspector William Monk. I've never been much of a mystery fan but I do enjoy Anne Perry's writing and the characters she's created for these books, so I indulge every once in a while.

To open the series, Det. Monk is recovering from a coach accident with no memory of his past or even who he is. He learns from his visiting boss that he is a police detective and when he is physically able, he returns to the office to take up a case he's been working but about which he remembers nothing. He begins again from scratch with a young assistant named John Evans, trying to hide from everyone around him that his memory is gone.

In the process of trying to discover the person responsible for the death of Joscelin Grey, Monk comes up against the rich and powerful Grey family who tolerate the detective with barely concealed contempt and do as little as possible to assist in the investigation.

As Monk gets closer to the truth, it becomes appallingly clear to him that he was somehow involved in the murder, but he can't remember anything about his connection to the victim. His one great regret is that Evans must eventually learn the truth and Monk will lose the only real friend he has.

This quote on the back of the book from the Atlanta Journal & Constitution says it all: "Murder fans who prefer their crimes with a touch of class should heat some scones and nestle back for the afternoon." I didn't have the scones but I thoroughly enjoyed the Victorian era settings and the characters with their slightly strange names. Where else could you possibly meet a woman called Callandra Daviot?

If you haven't tried these Anne Perry mysteries you should check them out. She also has several Victorian Christmas mysteries that are fun reading for the holidays.