Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday Salon - December 14, 2008

For those who are following my blog who might not be well-versed in the world of reading blogs, let me quickly paste the description of the Sunday Salon from its website:
Every Sunday the bloggers participating in that week's Salon get together--at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones--and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another's blogs. Think of it as an informal, weekly, mini read-a-thon, an excuse to put aside one's earthly responsibilities and fall into a good book.

So, while I am somewhat intimidated to enter this literary salon, here is my first posting.

My pers
onal reading time is rather at a premium right now (too many holiday preparations, end of school activities, and final papers to grade), but I have managed to sneak away a few minutes here and there to begin a new book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. As my husband commented upon reading the title, "This is certainly outside your normal reading fare!" Well, it is and it isn't. The title is very misleading (and to be honest, I have not yet learned the significance of the hedgehog), but this book has already won my heart and has moved from my "to borrow from the library list" to the "I must have this book for my personal collection list." This is a book that I will want to read again and again because of the intriguing characters, the Parisian setting (I LOVE that city) and, primarily, because of the depth of the language that is so captivating.

A brief summary from the inside flap of the book reads:
Paloma (a 12 year girl who resides with her family in a bourgeois building in a posh Parisian neighborhood) and Renee (the 54 year old concierge of the bourgeois building) both hide their true talents and their finest qualities from a world they suspect cannot or will not appreciate them. Paloma is a super-smart adolescent who has come to terms with life's seeming futility and chooses to live behind a mask of mediocrity until she decides to end her life on her 13th birthday. Renee is a cantankerous widow who loves soap operas and cats, but secretly is a ferocious autodidact who devours art, philosophy, music and Japanese culture. The two eventually discover their kindred souls that results in a redemptive novel that exalts the quiet victories of the inconspicuous among us.

The story is a double narrative, with each of the main characters writing a journal of their thoughts, feelings, and reactions to life. Renee's voice has the edge of a cantankerous old woman, but with a great deal of humor. Renee's vocabulary is exquisite and find myself reading and re-reading some of her detailed descriptions. I found the following excerpt particularly inviting:
I have read so many books....And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading - and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she's been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact. Deprived of the steady guiding hand that any good education provides, the autodidact possesses nonetheless the gift of freedom and conciseness of thought, where official discourse would put up barriers and prohibit adventure. (p53)

I think I have read that paragraph at last 3 times, and I still find myself in awe. Renee has described ME (although I am not quite a 54 year old cantankerous woman). I had no idea that there was a name for people like me, but I am an autodidact (wow - that sounds so very fancy). While I have a college degree in French and Political Science, I have not used those skills since writing my last term paper in 1982. I currently teach several classes of English, but the last English class I took was my senior year in high school. I teach British Literature, but I had never read a single one of those books before taking over the class. I have virtually taught myself everything - with amazing debt and gratitude to the internet. But more importantly, I LIKE being an autodidact. I love learning and have often said that if it paid well, I would be a professional student. I simply cannot imagine a week where I have not learned something new, interesting, and though-provoking.

Paloma's journal entries are much more serious. In fact, she has set the goal of having the greatest number of profound thoughts before her suicide on her 13th birthday, and she devotes one entire journal to keep track of them. She enjoys writing these thoughts in either haiku (3 lines) or tanka (5 lines) poetry. I particularly enjoyed reading the details that she used to describe profound thought #5: Life - Everyone's - Military Service.
"Colombe (her sister) has figured out that what I dread more than anything else in life is noise. I think she discovered this by chance. It would never have crossed her mind spontaneously that somebody might actually need silence. That silence helps you to go inward, that anyone who is interested in something more than life outside actually needs silence: this, I think, is not something Colombe is capable of understanding, because her inner space is as chaotic and noisy as the street outside.....Since she can't invade anything else because I am totally inaccessible to her on a human level, she invades my personal auditory space, and ruins my life from morning to night....(she) won't stop at just ignoring the facts; she converts them into philosophy: 'My pest of a little sister is an intolerant and depressive little runt who hates other people and would rather live in a cemetery where everyone is dead - whereas I am outgoing, joyful, and full of life.' If there is one thing I detest, it's when people transform their powerlessness or alienation into a creed." (p 84)

What I found fascinating about this paragraph is that it is also ME (and I am mosts definitely not a precocious 12 year old). I have always loved silence and prefer driving in silence to listening to the radio (I can't even listen to a book on tape). I like that silence allows me the ability to think clearly - without any distractions. I like to "go inward" and be self-reflective. I have solved many a problem by allowing the quiet moments to stir my own creative juices and think "outside" the box. I like reflecting on my life - not necessarily to ponder regrets, but rather to think how I might respond differently in the future. Solitude allows me to listen to that still, small voice and really hear it. I think the love of silence is one of the reasons why I love to read. In the silence of the moment I can be transported to a different world. But....far too often I feel that my love of silence is not understood. I think some do view me as the "one who prefers a cemetery where everyone is dead" - and they don't understand that a preference for silence does not mean a joy-less life. To the contrary, I am really quite at peace.

So, there you have my first Sunday Salon post. A bit verbose, but hopefully an insight as to how this book can be incredibly thought-provoking for those who choose to read it.


  1. Welcome the Sunday Salon! THE ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG does indeed sound fascinating.

  2. au⋅to⋅di⋅dact
    Show Spelled Pronunciation [aw-toh-dahy-dakt, -dahy-dakt] Show IPA Pronunciation
    a person who has learned a subject without the benefit of a teacher or formal education; a self-taught person.

    Another piece of the PUZZLE falls into place!

    Your closer to 54 than you were yesterday! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

  3. I recently added this book to my amazon wish list. Now it sounds like I should buy myself a Christmas present instead!


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