Crossing Washington Square

Crossing Washington Square Crossing Washington Square by Joanne Rendell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A hoot! Really well-written, funny, with digs at academe, and three love stories, including the awkward relationship between two very different but similarly-vulnerable women.

The premise of the novel highlights one of my soapbox issues: intellectual snobbery, especially at the expense of scholars (and ordinary folks) who take popular culture seriously. Rachel is a young scholar whose unexpected bestseller on popular women's fiction has earned her an invitation to teach at a prestigious Manhattan college. (Think Camille Paglia, younger and cuter, and definitely less frenetic.) Diana is a Plath scholar whose disdain for Rachel's specialty extends to Rachel herself.

Throw in celebrity twins, a Dylan Thomas-Ted Hughes womanizer, a trip to London, and truly-evocative descriptions of interiors (apartments, an airplane, an academic conference room) that utterly remove the distance between reader and story, and you have a very enjoyable read, indeed!

(My only regret? Alas, Rachel's book is not, ahem, in print. I'm sure I'd love it.)

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Louisa May Alcott, the woman behind Little Women

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If American Bloomsbury was the appetizer, then this book is the meal. Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, was a true American original: a deplorably-bad writer and a sensational orator who travelled the country speaking about Transcendentalism in-between living in disastrous utopian communities that were based more on philosophy than the mere, mortal details of farming and human nature.

Louisa's life flowed from that childhood, both the joyous (loving Henry David Thoreau) and the horrific (near-starvation and grisly poverty). Her talent for writing potboilers saved her and her family from the ruinous debts that had been incurred by Bronson's inability to provide for his family. However, not until she acceded to her family and editor's desire for her to write for children did she find the voice that would bring her unimaginable wealth and fame.

Harriet Riesen's book is nicely done - factual without droning, and admiring without doting. I greatly enjoyed the details of Louisa's trips overseas, partly because the writing is so wonderful, and partly because (warning: subjectivity ahead) it made me happy to know that Louisa had been happy.

(Note to Riesen's editor: Daisy and Demi were Meg's children, not Jo's. Ah well.)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Elegance, from Webster's Online:A quality of refined gracefulness and good taste.

A hedgehog is elegant. Its spiny defenses are attached securely; they do not shoot in all directions to injure at random. Each spine is a dull camouflage, not garish or multicoloured like the feathers of a tropical parrot or the scales of a tropical fish. Predators and passers-by trot past apace.

Both Madame Michel and Paloma, the narrators of this novel, are hedgehogs in a ritzy Paris apartment building. Madame Michel, the concierge, appears to be a drab, slightly slow sterotype, a disguise that she has perfected over the years since her husband died. To the residents, she is a plodding prole: a presence to be summoned and directed, nothing more. To her diary, she reveals all: her autodidact past and her desperate need to hide a sensibility that encompasses Purcell to Tom Clancy. She needs to survive, and she writes of her need in prose that ranges from literary and witty to heartbreaking.

Paloma, a brilliant 12-year-old existentialist, studies manga, writes witty and erudite diaries, and plans to commit a flamboyant suicide when she reaches 13. Part sophisticate, part little girl, she writes a good deal about irritants (including her noisy older sister whose expensive schooling seems to be quite, quite pointless) and moments of grace, which, she hopes, might form an anodyne to her bleak world-view.

Were it not for a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu, these lives might have progressed (or detonated) according to their carefully-constructed camouflage. Ozu realizes quickly that each is not as she appears. The below-the-stairs drab is teased out by a reference to Anna Karenina, and the little girl soon finds that the concierge shares her own refined and cynical sensibility.

Since the stories of all three characters play out through the two diaries, I was happy to have listened to the audiobook. The two narrators capture the intelligence, wit, blindness, and grace behind characters who might have seemed too unappealing to follow long enough for a reader to glimpse, truly see, even though Ms. Barbery's writing is smooth and compassionate and - elegant.

How I long to read French well enough to read Barbery in the original!)

If I decide to re-learn French when I retire, my goal shall be to return to the Hedgehog. Even if I don't, I know I'll reread this book, slowly, spine of book (or glowing reader) in hand, teasing out the true spine of each character.

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