Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

I know I usually put the covers and links at the end of the post but seriously you guys, you need to just click through and order this immediately, and then we can talk about the review.
The Greek poet Archilochus said "the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Isaiah Berlin would later write an essay exploring this idea via an examination of Tolstoy and his self-assessments, saying that Tolstoy's nature was that of a fox, but that he wanted to be a hedgehog. The title of Muriel Barbery's book and the entire story examines the beauty in that singular worldview of the hedgehog, and it is glorious.

The story takes place in an apartment building inhabited by many people, but it focuses on just a few of them. One is the concierge, an autodidact who hides her expansive knowledge from the people who live in the building, and a young girl who has decided to kill herself. These two are surrounded by superficial, flighty foxes (or perhaps fox wannabes) with whom they must interact. When an outsider comes to the building, both of their lives change dramatically, though this shift is strangely in keeping with their hedgehog-like natures.

I know that sounds like a total book cover blurb, but you have to read this and I don't want to spoil it. There's so much in this slim little book - philosophy, art,music, relationships, politics, society. The writing is beautiful, which is a testament not only to Barbery but to her translator Alison Anderson. When I finished the book, I flipped through the last couple pages like a mad woman, looking for more story, and cried for five minutes. I don't know how else to explain how powerful and lovely this book is besides that. I don't think I've ever been more upset that a book was over.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Soundtracks and the City

To get home from BU, I take the green line to the red line via Park. There are a lot of things I don't love about the T (starting with the screeching wheels in the morning), but I do like the old feel of the stations. All that cool mosaic work and subway tile gives you such a wonderful feeling of how Boston is. I feel Boston's history whenever I'm in the city, from the cobblestones to the subways to the park space and the buildings - you can't escape the feeling that This Place Is Old, in the best possible way. I harp on a lot about how we need to remember the past and speak often and eloquently about what made us the way we are in order to move forward, and this sense of history in Boston makes that project much easier. It's not so difficult to discuss our Americanness, as it were, in the shadow of buildings that were touched by the Founders themselves.

In any case, I like going downstairs to the red line at Park because it's got this beautiful red tile that was used throughout the red line and there's something about the design of the platform that just feels very...enveloping. There's usually someone playing some kind of musical instrument, and today there was a guy playing guitar and singing. The songs he played just kind of fit the feeling of the station and my mood, and I started thinking about how often that happens. I was out last night with some of the other grad students and the music, again, just fit.

I think this explains why I like cities, and particularly why I love Washington, DC. A city always provides you with a soundtrack, be it comprised of street musicians or just the sounds of a lot of people in close proximity. It's more than just sound, too. Anyone who has spent time in a city can pick up on those small shifts in mood or energy that either carry you along or contrast with your own feeling. There's something about being in one place with thousands of other people, all with different things to do and places to go, and the noise that comes along with those people, that makes up a city's character. Boston has always been a special place for me because of its quiet, deep music, but it was in DC that I found a place that played the full range of music in my own soul.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Book Review: I Know This Much Is True

When Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" comes on the radio, I always think of my sister, even though it's really a romantic love song. The music just speaks so clearly to me of my sister's personality and irrepressible joy, and I love hearing it because it is so happy and I get to feel like my sister is there with me, no matter where I am. My sister is phenomenal. I'm impressed by her every day, and I so appreciate the fact that our parents raised us - along with my brother - with the understanding that feelings matter, and open love matters, and your family matters. There will be rough times, but in the end, you love each other in a way you won't ever love anyone else.

That's where this book sits for me.

I Know This Much Is True is about a lot of things, but it's first and foremost about loving your family even when they are broken beyond repair. The story follows a pair of twins, one of whom is schizophrenic, and as the healthy brother tries to advocate and save his brother, the story sprawls out into their family history, starting with their nuclear family and moving back generation by generation. The ending is a literary feat I always admire, too. It comes out clean and shiny - no mean feat considering the darkness that author Wally Lamb freely plunges into - but avoids feeling like a groan-worthy "and then they all lived happily ever after" closing.

Most important, though, is Lamb's writing. My mom banned me from reading She's Come Undone, Lamb's freshman outing, and in retrospect I can see why. I learned to read quite early and spent most of my life reading whatever I could reach in the house, and Mom (to her eternal credit, if you ask me) forbade very little of this, but Undone was firmly on the "oh no you don't" list. Without having read it (...yet), I think I get why Mom would keep it away from me; Lamb's ability to cut to the core of his fully realized characters to lay bare the most intense pain and the most consuming happiness is often difficult to read. There are so few books that can create actual heartache...not a generic sadness but an actual ache in your heart. This isn't a failure of literature, but a testament to the rarity of people who understand and convey that kind of depth. When Undone came out, I wasn't old enough and quite possibly wasn't tough enough to read the book for what it was.

Worth a read, not easy, not hard, beautiful writing and wonderful commentary on love. If you're a Niall Williams fan you will love this.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


About nine years ago, I started writing creatively on a weird little website. It's kind of a cesspool of oddity at this point, having gone the way of so many open-source websites, but it's given me some of the best friends I've ever had. This isn't just hyperbole...we're talking about people who wound up being bridesmaids and groomsmen at my wedding, to say nothing of those who attended as guests. These are also the folks who gave me confidence in my writing ability.

When I write for fun, I usually take a moment or image that feels particularly beautiful to me and try to relay what’s beautiful about it to the reader. I think I’m pretty good at this, as I’ve received good response from people about most of what I’ve put out there for public consumption, but you never really know if the reader’s mind is creating the exact portrait you want. This is kind of the tao of art in a lot of ways…the magic of art is its ability to affect people differently, which is why I am never going to like Kandinsky and why people fight over what Andy Warhol was going for. The great gift of art isn’t just bringing beauty into the world but the discussion that it can inspire.

I also think about whether people are actually seeing the same things I do. I might see one color and identify it as blue, and you would agree that it is blue, but we don’t know if we’re actually seeing the same image. You might actually see something that I would call orange. Living in a verbal society, we have to decide what to call things, so of course we have both learned that that particular image is “blue,” but what we’re actually looking at may differ. I think there’s a similar question in play with writing. I can describe something with the most perfect phrases, but reception all depends on your way of thinking. Just look at differences in language use – if I use a certain kind of idiom or a specific word that you wouldn’t select, a whole different feeling can develop.

This is all a long way of telling you that I recently had a story illustrated for the first time. My friend Rose asked me this summer if I would be interested in starting up a small press with her and our mutual friend Bill. I told her I’d be willing to give it a whirl, and we founded Pink Narcissus Press. When we established the website, though, we thought we should have some kind of content on the page so people had a reason to go to it with some frequency. We decided to write a story together about a town called Silence, and I wrote a piece called Ars Moriendi. Rose sent our stories to an illustrator, and when the sketches came back, I was instantly in love. Eva, my main character, looked EXACTLY the way she looked in my head as I was writing her. It was incredibly rewarding to see a solid measure of my authorial success. Eva had come across on paper precisely as I wanted her to.
That's an exciting thing, but what's REALLY exciting is our call for submissions! We have two anthologies in the works, and you should totally write something for them. Head on over to our Submissions page to get the low-down.

Breaking: Etsy Literally Has Everything I Want From Life

When I was growing up, my grandmother shared her penchant for weird stuff with me, including things like dehydrated fruit and tofu. One of the many weird things was a candy called horehound, which is a hard candy flavored by the horehound plant, which is...mintyish. A while back, I was thinking about this (I don't get out much) and thought it would be fun to find some to send to Mormor, "just because." I did find them, but in the process, I came across this great-looking candy shop on Etsy called Vintage Confections. I bookmarked it for later reference, and just recently came back to check it out. I ordered four items, all of which came perfectly packed, just in time to take some to a wedding on Block Island to test out on my parents and the other couple we stayed with. I'm so glad I found this seller, because her stuff is fantastic.

I love sea salt caramels, so I ordered both your traditional caramel-caramels and some sea salt caramel flavored barley candies.
The caramels are top notch, and I think my Mom might be addicted now. The hard candies are wonderful too...a great flavor in an unusual formulation.
She also had some glorious looking marshmallows. I wanted to try the Dulce de Leche ones because again...caramel.
However, when I placed my order, I had just spent a weekend with my friends in Yulan, NY at my friend Juls' relatives' lakehouse. While we were there, Juls made the most magnificent peppermint hot chocolate.
This, with a campfire and schnappsy mint hot chocolate.

It was in that blissfully minty state of mind that I clicked across these Candy Cane marshmallows. What the photo lacks in the Dulce de Leche listing's poetry, the product makes up for in sheer deliciousness. Juls will be getting some of these this holiday season for sure!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How To Get Dressed

I was clicking through what is now apparently my life's work on Suicide Blonde and came across this gorgeous shot of a coat Nicolas Ghesquière created for Balenciaga (photo by Nick Knight), and my immediate thought, after the reflexive "nnnngeh!" unspecific joy reaction, was that this is how clothing should make you feel. When I wear something I really love and am comfortable in, I feel like everything is light and glowing.

I shall make a note of this as the closet cleaning continues.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Gettin' a Ph.D, BRB

Okay, not actually vanishing full-scale, but I would like to note up front that shit is about to get real, and posting will likely be limited. On the upside, hooray for grad school!