Book Reviews

 

Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Europa Editions

$15.00

Excerpt:

 

In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together it is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe … I find this a fascinating phenomenon: the ability we have to manipulate ourselves so that the foundation of our beliefs is never shaken.

 

from The Elegance of the Hedgehog

 

This is an unlikely candidate for an international bestseller: not much of a plot, little action, and the two main characters are hardly the stuff of great literary heroines—

Madame Michel, a cheerless concierge, by her own description, fat, ugly and fifty-four, and Paloma, a precocious twelve year-old, “ripe for despair”, planning her suicide.

 

Living in the same building, both are hiding who they really are: Paloma dumbs down to her peers’ level, while Madame Michel plays the television loudly so people think she is mindlessly ensconced on her couch, while actually immersing herself in the delights of art that moves one to tears.

 

The life of the mind, for all its riches, is inherently a lonely life.

 

Reading this, I was reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins:

I’m nobody. Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

Then there’s a pair of us.

Don’t tell—they’d banish us, you know.

 

A mordantly humorous satire, the book moves between the musings of a very bright, very observant pre-teen, offering her “profound thought for the day” (“We mustn’t forget … that a lifespan is pathetically short, one day you’re twenty and the next day you’re eighty”) and the reclusive concierge’s reveries (“We cannot cease desiring, and this is our glory, and our doom. Desire! It carries us and crucifies us …”) Both are highly attuned to the human comedy as we make “our laughable way through life.”

 

Then, into their lives comes Monsieur Ozu, a refined Japanese gentleman who not only mirrors elegance, but in a way, bestows it. Madame Michel reflects: “This morning … I was surprised to discover that I am not who I thought I was.”

 

I have a theory as to why this book is so popular: I think it speaks of a particular kind of outsider, the pretender wearing his or her banal camouflage, trying to blend in; and testifies to the power of art—whether literature, painting, film, or music—to resurrect, re-invent, and rescue one from the insanity and absurdity of the everyday workaday world.

 

Not a compulsive page-turner like those other titles on the bestselling list, with their pierced, tattooed hacker heroines, or vampire boyfriends, Hedgehog is more a contemplative page-turner, capturing the loneliness of the long distance thinker, and that sublime joy—deeper than love—when one discovers a kindred spirit (Then there’s a pair of us), and for a moment one is no longer alone.

 

 

 

David Mitchell

Random House

$26

 

Excerpt:

 

On Marinus’s desk is a folio volume: Osteographia by William Cheselden.

Jacob contemplates the details [of the skeleton], and the devil plants a seed.

What if this engine of bones—the seed germinates—is a man’s entirety

“Doctor, do you believe in the soul’s existence?”

Marinus prepares, the clerk expects, an erudite and arcane reply. “Yes.”

“Then where”—Jacob indicates the pious, profane skeleton—“is it?”

“The soul is a verb.” He impales a lit candle on a spike. “Not a noun.”

 

from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

“The past is a foreign country,” L. P. Hartley famously noted. “They do things differently there.”

 

Too often historical novels are simply modern stories dressed up in period costumes; the best historical fiction becomes a travel guidebook to that foreign country of the past.

 

In David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, we are transported to Japan in 1799, where for over two hundred years, the Japanese have successfully sealed off the country from the contagion of Western religion and ideas. The one point of contact with the outside world is Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki Bay, where employees of the Dutch East Indies Company are confined to conduct their trade.

 

The book opens with a harrowing scene, immediately grabbing the reader. But then it lapses into a long stretch of scene setting, and introduces a bewildering array of Japanese and Dutch characters, most with unpronounceable names (Uzaemon, Ouwehand, Aibagawa, Gerritszoon) which may understandably cause the reader to lay the book aside. And that would be a shame, for this is a gripping and beautifully written work.

 

The story is told mainly through three characters: Jacob de Zoet, a young, honest clerk, sent to audit the records for suspected embezzlement—To the Dutch inhabitants of Dejima, embezzlement isn’t so much a crime as a way of life, which he now threatens.

 

Orito Aibagawa, a midwife and the daughter of a respected doctor, is disfigured.

Jacob falls in love with her “beautiful, burned face,” as does Uzaemon Ogawa, an interpreter to the Dutch who has imbibed forbidden Western ideas.

 

Orito is sold to the powerful Abbott Lord Enomoto, who collects deformed and otherwise unmarriageable young women for his monastery, about which terrible rumors circulate (Depravity Alert.) Uzaemon sets out to rescue Orito from this “nunnery of freaks,” and the story ratchets up from there.

 

In addition to a compelling story, Mitchell steeps us in the past: how people related, how they understood the world, the arcane lore of their medicine—Want to know how they removed kidney stones in the eighteenth century? (Trust me, you don’t.)

 

The author of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, Mitchell has twice been shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Man Prize. In Thousand Autumns, he has written a fascinating travel guide to two foreign countries: Japan and the past—where, in both, they do things differently.

 

 

 

Chris Cleave

Simon & Schuster

$14.00

 

Excerpt:

 

“…I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”

 

from Little Bee

 

The men came and they…That was how all of our stories started.”

 

There are books almost too painful to read. Little Bee pulls no punches. Powerful and wrenching, it is for people who can take their literature—and life—raw; this is fiction that takes no prisoners.

 

Chris Cleave, a journalist for The Guardian, has been compared to fellow British author Ian McEwan (Solar, Atonement, Amsterdam), so we should not expect some uplifting, heartwarming tale of the triumph of the human spirit. Both writers are more attuned to the deeper registers of human pathos.

 

Shortlisted for the Costa Award for Best Novel of 2008, this is a gripping story of two women—Little Bee, a sixteen-year old Nigerian girl, and Sarah, editor of a chic London magazine—whose lives come together on an isolated African beach and are bound forever by a single act of horror. The media would report it as one of those “crimes against humanity”—such a bland, innocuous term for acts of unspeakable violence, usually committed against women and young girls.

 

The incident may be set in Nigeria, but it could just as easily be Darfur, or Kosovo, or Iraq. Geography changes; the atrocities and the suffering are sadly universal.

 

Little Bee becomes a refugee, escaping to England where she stays in a detention center for two years, before seeking out Sarah and her husband, Andrew (“When I say that I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge”—The girl cannot escape from what she has witnessed; neither can Sarah.)

 

The book is often emotionally difficult to read and almost impossible to put down. A page-turner, it keeps drawing the reader to that African coast where we don’t want to go, but must.

 

For me, the only false step was when the story lapsed into details of Sarah’s previous adultery. Following the terror of what happened, her affair seemed somehow tawdry, the stuff of TV soaps: Will Sarah ever find true happiness with Lawrence? (Will Little Bee ever be able to live with the brutal rape and dismemberment of her sister?)

 

Sarah tells her, “We’ve got to get a grip. We can’t let ourselves be the people things happen to.” We, like them, want to hold out the hope for healing, knowing that, if it happens, it will be a partial healing.

 

Sometimes the “triumph” of the human spirit comes in a small, battered whisper: “We survived.”

 

 

 

 

 

Robin Cody

Oregon State University Press

$18.95

 

EXCERPT:

A kingfisher hovers in mid-air over the water, makes an arrow of himself and dives—plunk—spearing a fingerling and splash-flapping to a low limb. He points his beak skyward and swallows the fish in one neck-stretching gulp, then takes a couple of small bows, as if to say There, that’s how it’s done.

 

From Another Way The River Has

 

Reading this book you get the impression that Robin Cody is one of those rare individuals who actually stops and smells the roses—or watches river otters; a man who observes, and reflects thoughtfully on what he observes.

 

His book reminded me of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, or Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, or, even closer to home, South of Seattle, Jim LeMonds’ memories of growing up in the northwest woods around Castle Rock.

 

One senses in Cody a kindred spirit to Thoreau sitting out on Walden Pond, while the rest of us are living our “lives of quiet desperation.”

 

The author of Voyage of a Summer Sun, which received an Oregon Book Award, Cody has been an English teacher, a college dean, and a school bus driver.

 

He is a storyteller of things that he loves—rivers, and creatures of the rivers, and the special needs kids he drives to school each day.

 

In prose that is at once both vernacular and elegant, he covers a range of subjects dear to his northwest heart: from loggers’ lore to the Pendleton Round Up and the cowboys who travel the rodeo circuit (“eight second athletes,” he calls them—the amount of time required to stay on a bronco who is royally pissed off); exploring the rivers in his boat, The Turtle; and driving a “short school bus” while telling his favorite special kid stories with a unique twist: “Snow White and the Three Bears” or “Snow White and the Beanstalk.”

 

A true northwesterner, he has a healthy disrespect for the U.S. Forest Service and for all government bureaucracies (“It’s got so a man can’t pee in the woods anymore without filing an Environmental Impact Statement”) while also aware of the short-sighted impulse of making the fast buck at the expense of wilderness (“We could lose what is unique about this place. We could submit to the great Western theme of destroying what we love most.”) His take on evolution is simple and eloquent: “Organisms, over time, inherit the stuff that works.”

 

He describes a friend who was killed in the woods when his Cat rolled over and crushed him as possessing “the serenity of a man who knows who he is.”

 

My hunch is that this could describe Robin Cody as well.

 

 


Jane Isfeld Still

Cedar Fort Inc.

$8.99

 

Last March, as Jane Still prepared to read her humor essay at WordFest, she was apprehensive. Would the subject (breastfeeding) be appropriate? Would the men find this an opportune moment to go check the parking meter? Most importantly, would people laugh?

 

She needn’t have worried. People laughed as she began reading and they continued laughing to the end. The enthusiastic response gave her the confidence to send off her collection of essays about motherhood to several publishers.

 

One year later: At the May WordFest, Jane will be launching her book, “Mother’s Daze,” published by Cedar Fort Inc. You don’t need to be a mother to enjoy the book; to have had a mother is probably sufficient.

 

Taking a course in childhood development, she and her husband Rick decided they were now ready to become parents (“In my pre-baby days I was an authority on everything I knew nothing about.”) In short witty chapters, she describes her experiences: on being pregnant (“I was the size of a small apartment building and hadn’t seen my feet for weeks.”); on choosing a name that her son will have to live with for the rest of his life (“How can you sleep at a time like this?” she shouts at her husband. “Don’t you realize we need to name little Anonymous?”); on the subtle transformation that was taking place within her (“Motherhood had changed me. Most women became nurturing and unselfish. For me, it brought out my criminal tendencies.”)

 

Jane’s humor is that kind that makes one laugh while at the same time deepens one’s understanding. With a candor that is both funny and poignant, she shares the paradox of emotions we all experience (“Rick didn’t bring me any flowers. Just because we were on a student budget and I said I’d be mad if he spent money on flowers was no reason not to bring me some.”)

 

As she enters motherhood, Jane realizes, like many before her, that being a parent is going to be a journey for which there are no reliable maps (“I want my money back from that stupid child development class.”)

 

This book is the perfect Mother’s Day gift—to give to one’s children and husband, perhaps with a note attached: “And this is my side of the story.” It will make them laugh—and maybe help them understand.