Written by Jan Kline on May 3, 2011

Three Short Takes

These aren’t short books. I’m just short on time to blog about them, and wanted to get something in before they fade completely from memory.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

This one took a while to take hold of me, but I did end up liking it, with a few reservations. The two main characters are Renee, a 54-year-old concierge of a Paris apartment building, and Paloma, a 12-year-old girl who lives there. What connects them is that both withhold their real selves from others. Renee, instead of revealing her love of classic literature and serious film, pretends to be everyone’s drab cliche of what a concierge is. She wills her real self to be invisible to the upper class tenants of her building, and she does a thorough job of it. She leaves on a television tuned to the sorts of shows she thinks a concierge would watch, but then retreats to the back of her apartment to read Tolstoy and Proust. Paloma has nothing but contempt for the adults around her, as well as for her sister. She lets no one know the emotional trouble she’s in.

I found both characters entertaining — except when they drifted into philosophical treatises along the lines of “what is art?” (Barbery is a professor of philosophy, which somewhat explains the detours, but doesn’t make them fit any better into the structure of the novel). Luckily, these tirades are neatly cordoned off into chapters; after a while, I started skimming. In the last half of the book, the plot gains momentum through the introduction of a new character who gives Renee a reason to let herself be seen. And Paloma meets Renee, which opens her as well. I’ve heard that there’s a movie in the works.

The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer

Wolitzer (The Ten-Year Nap, The Position) strays into Alice Hoffman East Coast magical realism territory in her latest novel — only it’s New Jersey, not Massachusetts, and there’s a lot more humor involved. The story centers around Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s teachers and students, and the new drama teacher’s production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata — you know, the one where the women of ancient Greece agree to go on a sex strike till the men end a war they’ve been fighting. The play is cast, rehearsals begin — and one by one, women all over town start losing interest in sex after feeling an icy wind blowing around them.

In the wrong hands, this could be silly. But the characters are so real that they threaten to walk right off the page; we feel sympathy for the newly unarousable women as well as for their rejected men. Along the way we’re alternately touched and amused: Wolitzer can portray a healthy marriage going suddenly off the rails as well as she can the eye-rolling impatience of their teenage daughter, who knows they have nothing of value to tell her.

I won’t reveal how it ends, but I found this a very satisfying read.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

Prepare for frequent snorting on this one — Tina Fey is nearly as funny on the page as she is on the screen. From descriptions of her dark shin fur as an adolescent to a blow-by-blow commentary on her family’s dreary Christmas customs, Fey provides plenty of laughs, mostly at her own expense. Here’s the set up for the annual holiday trek:

Our annual pilgrimage from one set of in-laws to the other happens every December 26, or, as they call it in Canada: Boring Day.

We always plan to leave around seven in the morning and, like clockwork, we’re out the door by ten. After gassing up, deicing, and turning around for an unanticipated bowel movement, we glide onto glorious 80W by ten thirty. Sure, there are those trendy types who prefer 76/70 because “it’s more scenic” and “they have a McDonald’s,” but I think 80W has a certain ceci me deprime.

And here’s the classic Palin/Clinton sequence Fey did with Amy Poehler to open Saturday Night Liive, worth a repeat viewing. Fey says “Doing that sketch on live TV was a pure joy I had never before experienced as a performer.”

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