The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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June 16, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog and Gourmet Rhapsody

Where do you find the books you want to read next? For me, it's probably (1) browsing in bookstores or the library and (2) reading book reviews, and now reading blogs.  There are also 20 or 30 authors whose next book is a given.

I heard about The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery,  from a review in The Washington Post, and it seemed like the kind of novel I should read more often...French, unusual, modern.  The story revolves around the residents of a Paris apartment building, especially Renee, the ascerbic concierge.  Renee sees the world through very un-rose colored glasses; she is treated like a servant (and an idiot) by her tenants, as she fumes and pontificates about their pretensions.  When one of the building's long-time tenants dies, there's much speculation about who will move into his apartment, and an unlikely romance begins.  This was a book (and a set of characters) that grew on me as I read, and I also appreciated the fact that there was good storytelling involved. I think I actually physically sighed at the end. 

When I noticed another Barbery novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, I wanted to read it as well. Although it revolves around different characters (Renee makes a brief appearance), this is a prequel. The plot concerns the death of that tenant, M. Anthens, the world's greatest food critic, who is ironically (and symbolically) dying not of stomach or liver disease, but because his heart has given out. As he waits for the end he knows is coming, he remembers scenes from his childhood or adulthood that relate to food or great meals, and grows increasingly obsessed with recapturing an elusive flavor,something he can't immediately identify, that he had once tasted and never forgotten.  Interspersed with his rhapsodies are the voices of his friends and family, who see him differently than he sees himself. In the end, this book was not as moving as the first one, but I enjoyed it.

These books are darker, and more cerebral, than other books of this ilk (like Alexander McCall Smith's, for instance, which I also enjoy). I actually 'read' both by listening to them as audiobooks. Elegance was read by one narrator, doing multiple voices, and Gourmet Rhapsody was read by an ensemble, with each actor playing multiple charactersThat can be a plus or a minus, because the reading style and the voices created by the skillful narrators can color my perceptions of the characters a little.  I think in the case listening to them enhanced my enjoyment...and I probably read both books sooner than I would have otherwise.

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Two blogs I''ve recently come across, Book Bath and Thyme for Tea, are putting together an online event called Paris in July. 

We are two friends with a deep interest and love of French culture and way of life - although we experience and demonstrate this passion in very different ways. Karen has only recently discovered the magic of Paris - the city, the architecture, the fashion and the literature whereas the French experience has been a part of Tamara's life for a long time, leading her to learn the language and experience the culture in a deeper way. But for both of us as Australian's, the reality of traveling to France is a costly and timely experience - so we need to find ways of bringing France to us!
The aim of the month is to celebrate our French experiences through reading, watching, listening, observing, cooking and eating all things French!
There will be no rules or targets in terms of how much you need to do or complete in order to be a part of this experience – just blog about anything French and you can join in! Some ideas might include: 
  • reading a French themed book – fiction or non-fiction
  • watching a French movie,
  • listening to French music,
  • cooking French food,
  • experiencing French, art, architecture and travel
This sounds wonderful, and I hope it will be a chance to virtually meet some new people, so I'm looking forward to participating. (I'm pretty sure I will read and bake, but rules or not, it would be fun to try to follow each of their suggestions at least once.) I was tempted to file this entry away till July, but that would be cheating. :)

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