REVIEW: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I finished this novel nearly a month ago, but have been too busy to give it the full review that it deserves – before now. Before I start it should be known that it took me nearly 4 months to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a book of a mere 359 pages, and in fact I have started and finished 5 books in that time. The main reason for this is I didn’t really like The Elegance of the Hedgehog in the beginning and found it a bit grueling to read, especially compared to the others I was reading at the same time. The reason I found it grueling is that it is a very intellectual book with many literary references and words that were unfamiliar to me. Now, if you have been reading my blog for a while, or you know me, you will know that while I do enjoy a great work of literature I also enjoy a variety of more low-brow fiction and so am not as widely read as I would like (I try plus¬†I’m still young! plenty of time yet to get to all those classics!), so at the start of this book I was forever stopping to refer to my trusty dictionary, or google something which left me feeling quite the dunce ūüė¶

I don’t really enjoy feeling stupid while reading (who does?) , so I often found myself putting this one aside for days or weeks on end after one session. This was until I started to take it in my bag to classes and prac, a strategy I use on books I’m avoiding because the time on the bus and train forces me to give them a try. This strategy certainly worked on this little number and I found my feelings toward it quickly changed.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a french book that was originally published in 2006 under the title L’√©l√©gance¬†du h√©risson then translated into English in 2008. The book revolves around a central location – 7 Rue de Grenelle, a swanky apartment building in Paris – and only a handful of events happen anywhere else. The¬†narrative¬†is told through¬†two main characters¬†and narrators:¬†Madame Renee Michel, the middle-aged concierge; and Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old daughter of one of the wealthy families that resides in the building. Madame Michel is a 54-year-old widow who has worked at 7 Rue de Grenelle for 27 years, and she is a self-confessed autodidact¬†(yes this was one of the words I had to look up :S) in areas of literature (namely Tolstoy), art, music and film. However, she has kept the secret of her cultured self for all these years and played the part of the simple concierge as she fears loosing her job or being condemned by the uppity residents of the building. On the other hand Paloma Josse is disgusted by the bourgeois lifestyle of her family and others in the building and feels there is nothing to look forward to in adulthood. Therefore she has decided to kill herself and set fire to the building on her 13th birthday to avoid the future of the adults around her. However, Paloma is an incredibly intelligent and ¬†logical young lady, so in the time leading up to her suicide she has decided to keep records of things in the world around her that may be worth living for – titled “Journal of the Movement of the World” and “Profound Thoughts” – and it is through these journal entries that her sections are narrated.

The story starts out kind of bleak, with both main characters feeling pretty melancholy about their lives, but everything changes when a distinguished Japanese gentleman moves into the building. It was at this point that my interest accelerated because the plot really started to develop when previously the chapters were mainly character development. The groundwork that Barbery¬†had laid down in the earlier chapters meant that I was emotionally attached to Renee and Paloma by the time their stories and characters grew and I wanted to know more. The addition of the Japanese gentleman – Kakuro¬†Ozu – also lightened the story a fair bit because he is a very kind and deep person that appreciates the same art and culture as Renee. Ultimately this book explores a lot of themes, but mainly it explores the¬†philosophies of life and how people find comfort in the world¬†and people arround them, and that really appealed to me. However, it wasn’t all serious cultural references and philosophy, in fact there was some real laugh out loud moments, especially¬†the times when¬†Renee¬†is having tea¬†with Manuela, a maid who cleans many of the building’s apartments and always brings delicious pastries.

I¬†became so entrenched in the story and characters of The Elegance of the Hedgehog¬†that by the end (when an event happens that I won’t spoil) I was struggling not to burst into tears on the train, and I failed a tad. This is a real gem of french literature and would make a great book club book for a group that isn’t afraid to read something so peppered with references, because it provides a lot of fuel for discussions. Despite the fact that it took me forever to read, I’m glad I persevered with The Elegance of the Hedgehog and it is sure to be on the list of my favourite reads of 2011. I also have borrowed the film that was based on the book – The Hedgehog¬†– and look forward to watching it soon. Who knows, it may even make an appearance¬†in a future Top 10 on book to screen adaptations ūüėČ

I give The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery:

4 ¬Ĺ / 5 stars

REVIEW: Zombie: an Anthology of the Undead

Zombie: An Anthology Of The Undead

I’ve been reading this collection of short stories on and off¬†for nine weeks, not because they aren’t good, but because sometimes reading stories about zombies gets a bit too creepy (especially at night or after eating –¬†ew).

The stories are a lot more diverse than I was expecting. There are apocalyptic ones; ones where zombies are created to work for the living; a story of Lazarus; a voodoo zombie story; stories where people choose to become zombies; stories of people who love zombies; people who have sex with zombies; mindless zombies; fully functioning zombies; and a whole lot more.
Some of the stories were straight out gross or disturbing or violent, but others were really bittersweet or thought-provoking¬†and a couple were really funny. I was surprised¬†about the big moral issues brought up in many of the stories too. Questions of a person’s rights after death and whether¬†the walking dead can feel pain or should be treated with respect arose in many of the stories. A lot¬†of them also made me think about humanity and how we act in disasters, which is what a zombie plague is in essence. In several of the stories humans (live ones that is) were the real monsters, using the fact that zombies were already dead and sometimes violent as an excuse to fulfill¬†their¬†own sick violent tendencies, and some of them made me feel really sick because there is people out there that would act that way and the situations were almost like a spooky prophecy of the future.
My favourite stories were:
Family Business by Jonathan Maberry.
One of the stories that showed the darker side of humanity –¬†the kind that tortures zombies for fun and¬†sport –¬†while also being one of the bittersweet stories, one of an older brother teaching his 15-year-old brother the “family business” and along the way changing his perceptions of the dead and the living and the thin line between.
The Zombie Who Fell from the Sky by M. B. Homler
The only story which made me laugh out loud throughout. It had really snappy one-liners and events that were ridiculously humourous kind of like Shaun of the Dead but more like a graphic novel played out in text Рvery visual and fast paced.
The Storm Door by Tad Williams
A really interesting story, especially considering most of it played out as a conversation between the main character, a paranormal detective and his ailing godfather. I liked this one because unlike a lot of the others, zombies are smart, cunning and powerfully evil and how the dead bodies rise is explained (basically they are possessed by a kind of ghost/demon that enters as the departing spirit is leaving its body).
Second Wind by Mike Carey
This story was unique as it was about a man who chose to turn into a zombie and then hide away from humanity. The main character is a stock-broker who has already had a couple of stress-induced heart attacks and fears his next one will be his last so he outfits an old building and organises his money in preparation for his death. I enjoyed it because besides being dead and having to takes precautions against decomposition, the zombie in this story was the same as he was living and continued his life to some extent.
Weaponized by David Wellington
In this story dead soldiers are being used in combat, being controlled by chips inserted at the top of the spinal column¬†with preset directions such as walking or picking something up that can be administered remotely. This one was really fascinating because the “zombies” weren’t technically living dead but more like dead people turned into robots.
The story that creeped me out the most was:
Kids and Their Toys by James A. Moore
Only one word can describe this story: *shudder*. It was the creepiest and most disgusting of all, maybe for the fact that the horrible immoral humans in it were children.
And then there was one story that seemed totally out-of-place because as far as I could see it had  nothing to do with zombies at all O.O :
Shooting Pool by Joe R. Lansdale
I finished that one completely baffled –¬†why was it even included?
Overall I¬†really enjoyed this anthology, and I would recommend it to zombie movie lovers, or lovers of good horror stories ūüôā
I give Zombie: an Anthology of the Dead:

4 ¬Ĺ / 5 Stars