Sunday, August 28, 2011

The beauty of language

I've already blogged about how much I enjoyed The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but given my interest in brevity I didn't get a chance to delve into why. Barbery's love for language and beauty are really inspiring, especially for writers and aspiring writers. Take this quote, for example:

"Language is a bountiful gift and its usage, an elaboration of community and society, is a sacred work. Language and usage evolve over time: elements change, are forgotten or reborn, and while there are instances where transgression can become the source of an even greater wealth, this does not alter the fact that to be entitled to the liberties of playfulness or enlightened misuse when using language, one must first and foremost have sworn one's total allegiance."

(Emphasis mine)

Isn't that lovely? Doesn't it make you want to pore over a dictionary, or at least crack open a book of poetry?

In that spirit, I'll take the liberty of a second quote, this time from Langston Hughes, who taught me that I could like poetry.

Midnight Dancer
Of the jazz-tuned night,
Sweet as purple dew,
Like the pillows of all sweet dreams,
Who crushed
The grapes of joy
And dripped their juice
On you?

Excerpted from Selected Poems of Langston Hughes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The concierge, Time Magazine tells us, comprises a special class in France. They come from a single mold, cast with pulled-back hair, grey skin and grey souls. (Circa 1964, at least.) They were once the ubiquitous keepers of French apartment buildings, living in humble apartments on the ground floor and tending to the needs of the residents. Invisible and uninteresting, presumably.

Such is one of the heroines in The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The concierge Renee describes herself as ugly and afflicted with bunions, but we quickly learn that her invisibility is a well-crafted mask. Behind her frumpy, cantankerous exterior lies a woman of great intellectual curiosity who is captivated by the beauty of Art, if dismayed by the shortfalls of the world, particularly those of her residents.

One of the residents is twelve-year-old Paloma, a brilliant child who manages her own masquerade as she hides her intelligence and sensitivity from her family and schoolmates. Disappointed by the world, Paloma tells us that she intends to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday, lighting her family's luxury apartment on fire as a final farewell.

But the world still has some magic, both transformational and tragic, to work on these women. The story is mostly the record of their observations, their musings on life, art, beauty, and disappointment. Little happens in the sense of a traditional plot, but much is revealed.

I had checked this book out from the library and I wanted to return it today, before it was overdue. But I had not yet finished reading it so I stood in the library, which was crowded with patrons fleeing the downpour unleashed on the world outside, and I read the final pages. I completely forgot where I was - forgot that I was standing in a library, forgot that I was on my lunchbreak and needed to get back to work promptly, forgot that I was even in the United States. Barbery's characters are beautiful and her writing is a joy. (Which means that proper credit is due to Alison Anderson and her crystalline translation.) I love that I live in a world where a strange, philosophizing book like this one becomes a best seller.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson's unusual Gilead, knows his life is coming to a close, that his heart is counting down to its last beat. So this seventy-six year-old small-town preacher pens a letter to his seven-year-old son. His letter, the novel, meanders from philosophizing about life and religion to telling family history. Fortunately for the reader, John Ames is a very pleasant man to spend some time with. He's the sort of fellow you could sit with on a porch on a warm summer's night and listen to him while away the time as you sip tea and watch the fireflies blink.

The first half of the book is not much more exciting than that porch chat. It takes a long time for Robinson to introduce any tension, and once she does it's pretty slight. But, in the end, the beauty of her language and Ames's observations make the time spent worthwhile. For example, take this gem from the end of the book: "There is no justice in love, no proportion to it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality."

Ames is a humble, thoughtful man who recognizes his follies (sometimes) and is wise enough to acknowledge his mistakes. He shares the lessons learned and not learned in a lifetime, and it's a pleasure to share the journey with him. Particularly if you're not in a hurry to be entertained but can sit back and savor the conversation.

(Apparently this book won the Pulitzer in 2005.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Virgin's Knot, by Holly Payne

In mid-century Turkey, a beautiful young woman has grown up crippled by the legacy of childhood polio. But her father, her only parent, told Nurdane that when Allah takes something away, he gives something in return. So the loss of her legs, and the treasured ability to run and dance, is replaced by a legendary skill for making beautiful rugs. These prayer rugs are given to brides, which Nurdane will never be. Her latest creation is almost finished when the intrusion of a few strangers to their tiny village makes Nurdane question her deal with Allah, just as her father has made a mysterious bargain for the recipient of the remarkable rug.

Holly Payne writes The Virgin's Knot in an almost self-consciously "literary" style, forgoing quotation marks around dialogue and demanding a lot from the reader in terms of plot comprehension. The punctuation I found pretentious but the thought required to follow Nurdane's development was rewarding. I wouldn't have minded a little more explicit explanation at the end, but Payne introduces some interesting themes and, for readers willing to be patient with her, I think it's a memorable story. (Here's a nice interview with her.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Fun contest

The folks over at Literary Lab always have interesting discussions on craft and storytelling. To add to the fun, they've just announced their third story competition. Check it out. They've titled it "Variations on a Theme" and it's designed to be based (even if quite loosely) on inspiration from one of the two linked stories. Even if you don't submit a piece, it's a neat way to work your imagination a little bit and see what magic the muses bring to your writing desk.

The Literary Lab Presents...

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma