Category Archives: existential struggle

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

imgresI first read The Elegance of the Hedgehog in 2009, not long after it was translated from French. While reading it this time, I had two separate French people stopped me on the subway to tell me what a wonderful book it was. When I went back to see what I wrote about it on my blog after the first time I read it, I saw I didn’t. It made my Top Ten Books of the Year but apparently a lot of the books I love the most I haven’t written about–as though they were too immense to try to put into words. But now, seven years later, I will try.

The story alternates between two narrators who live in the same Parisian building. Paloma is a 12 year old girl who is frustrated with the rich, privileged people she comes from and is surrounded by. Renee is an autodidact and the long time concierge in Paloma’s building. She has created a secret life for herself, hiding her passion and ability for learning and philosophy, and love of civility behind what she believes to be her peasant-like station in life. As the story progresses, each character learns in her own way, as their paths cross with each other and a new tenant in the building, to live more freely as themselves, and to reassess how they perceive others.

Paloma’s story begins when she states she is going to commit suicide at the age of 13 because she can’t bear the world any longer. Her narratives are excerpts from her journal, where she records what she calls “movements of the world”–“the beauty that is there in the world, things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us” (page 38). Her hope is that she will find a reason for being, and reading the different things she noticed reminded me to look for them, too.

I love Paloma’s journey, especially as a middle school teacher who appreciates/understands the simultaneous energy and self-centered nature young adolescents possess. Renee, though, is like a dear friend. She encompasses, in most ways, the kind of quiet, reflective life filled with learning that I want to have for myself. In her story I found so much of the mindful nature I work at on and off. She speaks of her daily tea with her best (and only) friend:

“I know tea is no minor beverage. When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?” (page 91).  Here she is talking about tea, and she is also talking, unknowingly, about herself. Renee’s greatest flaw is that she wants to hide her best self from everyone, and in doing so misses out on the joy of kindred souls.

My favorite moment of the book, though, is when after gathering courage and dressing up for a night out with a new tenant, none of the old tenants recognize her. The new tenant replies “It is because they have never seen you. I would recognize you anywhere” (page 303).

The story of Renee finally sharing who she really was and the beauty of this new tenant to see it has been filling my thoughts the past few weeks–to what degree do we see people? Or do we just pass judgement? Or make assumptions? What friendships are we missing because we are holding back? I want to have eyes like this new tenant. I want to teach my students to have these eyes. To see without prejudice. To find small moments of beauty when all else seems dull.

{As a side note, I saw the French film version 3 or 4 years ago, and loved it as well. Of course, only after having read the book.}

A Little Life.

I read a150305_BOOKS_ALittleLifeCover.jpg.CROP.original-originalbout A Little Life when it came out and was happy to learn by the time I got around to reading it, that the 800 pages were thankfully in paperback. Though the book was physically lighter, it was one of the most emotionally-heavy books I’ve read in a long time.

The story begins by following 4 college roommates, each with a different background, all now living in New York City trying to make it in their chosen fields. Ultimately the story narrows to focus on one, Jude, who doesn’t share any details of life pre-college life with his friends. Over the course of the book, the reader slowly learns that prior to beginning college, Jude experienced years of harrowing abuse–and it was devastating to read. Though we watch as the 4 friends find success, Jude is never able to free himself from his past and remains paralyzed by his experiences.

The New Yorker put it poignantly: “Though he is named after the patron saint of lost causes—the name given to him by the monks who raised him—what’s most obviously lost here is the promise of spiritual absolution or even psychological healing.” Throughout reading the story, I felt myself longing for Jude to feel free from his past, especially when he is finally able to find some happiness in his present. But I found myself in the same boat as his friends–devastated as they are unable to reach him.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the word acceptance in both the mundane and not so mundane as I’ve been exploring {often poorly, but. acceptance!}  meditation and mindfulness. I’m a type A, fix-it sort of person which obviously causes some tension in this regard. This story amplified the tensions as I read: When will Jude accept the genuine love people have to offer him? Should Jude’s friends accept his private, self destructive behavior, especially as their repeated attempts to help haven’t worked? Alongside the other characters, I simply couldn’t accept the broken parts of Jude’s life.

 The author of The New Yorker article goes on to say:  “In this godless world, friendship is the only solace available to any of us…Of course, atheism is not uncommon in contemporary literary novels; with notable exceptions, such as the works of Marilynne Robinson, few such books these days have any religious cast. But perhaps that is why they rarely depict extreme suffering—because it is a nearly impossible subject to engage with directly if you are not going to offer some kind of spiritual solution.

This was the difficult part of this book–the readers can only watch as Jude wrestles with his pain (and Yanigihara doesn’t spare him at all as the story continues) and as his loved ones wrestle with how to help.  It was devastating as a reader (and deeply unsettling as someone who longs for healing, redemption, and hope). Which circles us back to the concept of acceptance. When? How? For whom? We are left with no pat answer and a lot to think about–which makes me recommend that if you are to read this book, please do it with a book club or find a friend as a reading partner. This “little life” does not feel little at all.

Your place in the family of things: picture books and poetry

artist Brian Rea for NYT

artist Brian Rea for NYT, February 26, 2015







This morning, I read last week’s the Modern Love column in the New York Times and it was one of the most beautiful essays I’ve read in a long time. It is about a mother with an aching teenage daughter, and how she starts putting poems in her shoes from authors (including Mary Oliver, my favorite) who have “been in pain before and struggled to find hope” and put it into words.

This season-semester has been one that feels long and difficult mostly because I signed up for too many graduate school classes at a time where my daily work feels its most challenging.  And because, winter. But I was reminded this week of the difference a good story can make when I read Fox, basically the most poignant picture book ever made, by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks to my 8th graders. They were anxiously, nervously, crazily awaiting the arrival of their high school admittance letters (which are shamefully delivered to school and not home), but we took a period to read this story aloud, talk about developing themes, and in turn talk about life, of course. It was incredible how silent and absorbed and responsive they were to this story about a dog with a missing eye and a bird with a burnt wing.

Last night a dear friend and I were discussing the paralyzing feeling of working with teenagers whose lives feel harder than anything we can imagine (she helps run a mentoring program), and knowing that there’s not a formula or behavior pattern we can teach them that can fix all that’s on their plate. We started thinking of what we can really offer, and I found myself basically reciting Fox to her as we talked over tacos. As my students and I discussed this week, it’s a story of friendship and loyalty, of betrayal and shame, of hope and the courage to face what lies ahead. And as we escaped into the story, our class discussions landed on some beautiful truths about processing hardship, facing mistakes, and building friendships that are rooted for storms. And my friend and I, avid readers with bleeding hearts, were reminded again of the power of story and words.

I’ll end with one of the poems referenced in the Modern Love essay, Wild Geese, one that I happened to listen to Mary Oliver read and discuss in a podcast last week. In what feels like a dreadfully long winter, today I am grateful for writers who remind us we are not alone.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are,

no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.



An Unnecessary Woman.

UWfinalcompAn Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is the kind of novel that practices what it preaches, one where form matches function, and one where I felt ready to give up on it half way through when I couldn’t define a real plot line, but then began to see what Alameddine was up to with his protagonist.  Aaliyah Saleh, 72, has lived alone in her Beirut apartment ever since her husband of 4 years left in her early twenties. She spent her career working, and educating herself, in a bookshop and retired when the shop closed.  She translates a novel a year, using French and English versions to write an Arabic one, and yet she simply saves her work in a small back room of her apartment.  We meet her when she is pondering her next translation, and her thoughts take us through the Lebanese Civil War, as well her more personal battles.  By the end, it feels like we’ve not necessarily read a book with a clear plot, but instead got to know a woman and her city.

The most interesting part of this book for me the fact that while Aaliyah is virtually a recluse at this point of her life, she is also a brilliant literary theorist–and her theories were fascinating. Real literature, she asserts passionately and convincingly, exists to make palpable the mysteries of human existence, not explain them away.  This is what Alameddine did with his work, and why I think this book wasn’t written with the standard narrative plot. I think this book is brilliant, though difficult to recommend unless you comfortable stepping into Aaliyah’s world–and if you are reading from a privileged, Western perspective, being made to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Because her world is so intricate and complex, and because it took me the entire length of the book to fully appreciate its purpose (the “rising action” occurs in last 15 pages or so), I thought the best way to end this post is to share some of Aaliyah’s ideas–her reflection on the literature she reads and the Lebanese Civil War is extraordinary. The irony of the title is not lost on the reader, because though she is a childless, unmarried, reclusive woman, her voice is also absolutely necessary in a reader’s growing understanding of human existence.

None of us know how to deal with the aleatory nature of pain. (98)

One reason we desire explanations is that they separate us and make us feel safe. (99)

There should be a new literary resolution: no more epiphanies. Have pity on readers who reach the end of a real-life conflict in confusion and don’t experience a false sense of temporary enlightenment.  Dear contemporary writers, you make me feel inadequate because my life isn’t as clear and concise as your stories. (148)

No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed. (155)

To write is to know you are not home…It is that longing for a mystical homeland, not necessarily a physical one, that inspires art…I appreciate longing.  (195-196)

Want Not.

(First, a note:  Sometimes life happens and my blog gets ignored.  The reading is still happening, for learning or escape purposes, but the time to reflect gets lost.  I’ve finished 5 books since I’ve last written and hope to catch up in the coming weeks, since now I’ve got nothing but time for a couple months.)

Summer in New York City is when I am most cognizant of waste: the waft of overflowing trashcans baking in the sun is, unfortunately, the smell I now associate most with July and August.  It is frightening to imagine the visual of the waste this city produces.  It seems that our culture’s general attitude is one of “throw away” convenience–and in one of my recent reads, author Jonathan Miles asks the readers to earnestly consider what we think we want, what we actually want, and the way we deal with the waste that is leftover.

Chosen for a teacher book club, Want Not is a novel made of three storylines that just barely overlap by the book’s end.  I can say with certainty that I didn’t love reading it, but once I got about half way through I began to appreciate the questions Miles was asking of his readers, stemming from the mantra “waste not, want not.”

For context, one storyline is of two “freegans,” a young couple living off the grid in New York City, squatting in an apartment for shelter and dumpster diving for food.  The woman is steadfast in her beliefs and the man a bit more electrified by his girlfriend and the thought of going against his materialistic parents than the idealism behind their lifestyle.  The second is a couple who lives in a “McMansion”: the wife lost her first husband on 9/11, the same morning she found out he had been cheating and planning to leave her.  Her second husband is a materialistic, narcissistic millionaire by way of debt collecting.  The final plot revolves around a middle aged professor on a committee to help design a site for nuclear waste whose father is battling Alzheimer’s and whose wife recently left him.

There were three questions I thought Miles was asking the to think about the story wove through at least seven narrators:

  • What do you desire in life?
  • How do you chase those desires? How are they related to the economics of your existence?
  • What do we do with our waste, both literal and metaphorical?

He suggests that in American culture today, people want immediately and easily: from iced coffees to homes to relationships, and this kind of wanting has broken down the notion of true meaning in life.  Though this was a long read and not every character has a personal revelation about the definition of waste and ill-pursued desires, by the end a sense of hope creeps into the plot.  One character begins to get rid of his “stuff,” starting with the extra things he had sitting around his house.  However, he started getting rid of most of his belongings: “With every sale or gift he could feel his broken life dematerializing, its old scarred edifice crumbling, the invited looters fleeing with its junked remnants, and with that feeling came astonishing relief,” (318).

As he came to reflect, the realization came: “Everything is salvageable. Even you,” (329).

I’m not sure that I could flat out recommend this book, because it took some serious work to get into, but I would recommend thinking about what you want from life–and if those wants are enriching and adding meaning or if they are piling up and taking up space but actually leaving you empty.  It is possible to reclaim a life you want to live.