Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Elegance of Muriel Barbery

When The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French writer Muriel Barbery was released last year, I devoured the novel in one sitting. The structure intrigued me--very short chapters, confessional and intimate-like essays, which overlap to tell the story of Renee Michel, a 54 year-old concierge at a posh Paris apartment building. "I'm a widow, short, ugly, chubby; I have bunions on my feet and, on certain difficult mornings, it seems, the breath of a mammoth. But above all, I conform to the image assigned to concierges. It would never occur to anyone that I am better read than all these self-satisfied rich people." What a voice! This is a novel about social class, how people can be isolated (and misunderstood) even though they live together, and the power of art, literature and philosophy. Over the course of the story, Renee befriends Paloma, a 12 year-old girl from the building. She is a young idealist--disillusioned and cynical about the self-importance and vanity of the people who populate her world (her tone is slightly reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, if he were a bit more philosophical)--who intends to commit suicide by her 13th birthday. Not to fret. In the union of these two (very different, solitary) souls there resides great comic relief and in the end, a life-affirming message.

Just released is Gourmet Rhapsody, the novel Muriel Barbery wrote prior to The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Both books share a similar literary structure, many of the same characters and they are both set in the same Paris apartment building on Rue de Grenelle. The themes, too, remain but in Gourmet Rhapsody, Barbery adds the sensuality of food and mortality to the story of the last 48-hours in the life of a powerful, famous (and very arrogant) French food critic. "I am the greatest food critic in the world," Pierre Arthens, the protagonist announces at the beginning of the book. "I am going to die and there is a flavor that has been teasing my taste buds and my heart and I simply cannot recall it." In the story, Arthens, a brilliant yet heartless man, confronts his mortality by "rhapsodizing" about his experiences with food--recalling, in luscious detail, foods such as bread, tomatoes, sushi and mayonnaise, as well as mentally revisiting his grandmother's table, a country farmhouse and a mistress' kitchen. But another side of Arthens emerges via monologues from the people who willingly (and unwillingly) shared their lives with him--his devoted and long-suffering wife; his bitter, drug-addicted son; his unloved daughter and grand-daughter; two mistresses; and even his cat. It's a fascinating, beautifully-rendered story about a complicated man, his life and death, and how, in the end, the evocation of his experiences with food defined his desires, emotions and the goals of his life.

Muriel Barbery is an intelligent, colorful writer, one to watch. Do yourself a favor and don't miss either of these bittersweet, redemptive books.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Best of the Best

The National Book Foundation is allowing the general public to vote for The Best of the National Book Awards in Fiction. The nominees are comprised of past winners and they are:

1) The Stories of John Cheever (John Cheever)
2) Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
3) Collected Stories of William Faulkner (William Faulkner)
4) Flannery O'Connor: The Complete Stories (Flannery O'Connor)
5) Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon)
6) The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (Eudora Welty)

So far, Flannery O'Connor is the front runner...Hooray! Cast your vote here. By doing so, you might win a trip to the NBA ceremony in NYC!

Once on the site, be sure to click on the pictures of each author to link to other information about each book and author--as well as thoughts about each books from other writers, former nominees, and acclaimed NBA Judges like Alice Elliott Dark.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

What Makes A Reader Care?

A creative writing instructor of mine once stressed how important it was to read books to the very end—even if we didn't like them. He believed writers could learn from work that didn't really appeal to them and/or hold their interests—possibly as much or more than work that did. As a disciplined person—at least in my reading and writing habits (red wine and extra-cheese pizza do not apply)—I’ve tried to hold fast to that rule. When I close a book, I sit with things in order to pin-point what worked and what didn't in order to apply what I’ve learned to my own writing. We bring so much of our own lives to what we read, as well as to our interpretations and the judgments we make about what we read. I've come to the conclusion that it always helps a reader's journey if they care about a character, but what makes a reader care . . . A sense of familiarity? Empathy? Anger? Frustration? A redeeming quality? Hoping the character will transform in a way that will be fulfilling to us by the end of the book? All of which leads me to the larger question of do you really have to "like" a character and agree with his/her choices in order to enjoy and fully appreciate a book?

I recently finished The Film Club by David Gilmour, a Canadian novelist and film critic. This thought-provoking memoir is about a father who allows his troubled, 15 year-old son to drop out of school with the stipulation that he'll watch three movies a week with Dad, and together, they will discuss them, in depth. I really looked forward to this read, as I was raised on a steady diet of movies since I was kid. The premise of Gilmour’s ultimatum to his son was the hook that enticed me. And while the plot appeared to be about a father and son who spend time together watching great movies, the story evolved into one more about a father trying to understand a son (and vice-versa) and parenthood—the challenges, joys, and the tendency to make mistakes.

I am a reader of mostly female-themed domestic fiction and it makes me wonder what kept me engaged through all 240 pages of this memoir. I am not a father or a son, and my own father (or mother, for that matter) would never have proposed such an educational ultimatum to me nor would they have been so liberal about alcohol and drug use and teenage sexual exploits. There were times during the read when I fiercely disagreed with Gilmour’s parenting style and the choices he made. But he did offer me an honest glimpse of an unfamiliar world. In straightforward, deft prose—and through candid, often heart-wrenching, storytelling—Gilmour revealed his foibles, as well as those of his son, as they both grappled with “the experiment” and tried to find their respective places in the world. Flawed characters trying to learn and grow—and do the right thing . . . in that, there is great universality.

The Film Club (a memoir) by David Gilmour
(Twelve, Hardcover, 9780446199292, 256pp.)
Publication Date: May 2008
To purchase this book via INDIEBOUND click HERE

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What Becomes A Novel Most?

Writing is a subjective business. While one person might love a book, another might find they can’t get beyond Chapter One. In a review in The Washington Post of A Gate at the Stairs—a much-anticipated novel by Lorrie Moore, a coveted and acclaimed short story writer—Ron Charles hailed the book, but referred to it as "an unhurried tale." Further on in the review, Charles states, "I should warn you that Moore is a lot more interested in her narrator than her plot. There is a fair amount of precocious riffing in this novel, a syncopation of sweet and mordant beats. Things do happen--even startling, gripping things--but any reader who needs that to stay engaged will have drifted away 200 pages earlier during one of Tassie's (the protagonist’s) soliloquies. Much of her fascination with words and wordplay is amusing, but some of it seems too clever by half, along with her super-duper writing-seminar descriptions of the weather that are polished to distracting brilliance."

I admire
Ron Charles's reviews. He is a conscientious, sensitive reader. He obviously spends quality time with books and takes great pains to fully absorb them in order to write such thoughtful reviews. But in a world (and an industry) where sensationalism often prevails, Charles's assessment of A Gate at the Stairs accommodates contemporary reader expectations. I'm well aware that publishing has become less about writing and more about book sales. But it seems that novels vying for bookstores must strive, first and foremost, for hook and page-turning ability—why else would Ron Charles need to issue that "warning"? Of course, an author of Lorrie Moore's literary stature and caliber of craft can cry herself to the bank. But why should it be that some books—gently-paced, well-written books by lesser-known or even unknown writers—those that serve quiet shifts in plot and subtle character transformations, are often considered of inferior quality and marginalized?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Spare Room

"My initial reason for writing is that I need to shape things so I can make them bearable or comprehensible to myself. It's my way of making sense of things that I've lived and seen other people live, things I'm afraid of, or that I long for."~Helen Garner

PREMISE: A woman in Melbourne, Australia offers her spare room to an old friend who lives in Sydney and is seeking an alternative medical treatment to battle terminal cancer.

In The Spare Room, Australian author Helen Garner returns to fiction for the first time in 15 years. It was surely worth the wait, as her latest offers a realistic (often wry) examination of the tug-of-war between life and death, patients and caregivers. The plot of this very brief (192 page) novel, that reads more like a memoir, is obvious. However, if you are a conscientious reader you will recognize (and appreciate) how small, subtle moments change lives, and you'll be rapt by Garner's attention to detail. Her best scenes are understated but nuanced in such a way that they become immensely powerful. Take note of the graceful, concise writing in Chapter One (a few short paragraphs on pages 4-5), where Helen, in the midst of preparing her spare room for her friend's arrival, breaks a mirror. It is a chilling moment that foreshadows, on many different levels, all that is to come between two, very different women--Helen, the caregiver, who has lived a "traditional" life as a wife and mother and Nicola, the patient, who has lived (or has she?) a more artistic, "bohemian" lifestyle. The circumstances that reunite these two old friends will test their strengths and weaknesses, their belief systems and coping mechanisms. Helen Garner has written a deeply-affecting novel that is a beautiful tribute to the power and frailty of friendship and how it can transform amid the challenges of life.