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.}

Everything Beautiful Began After

imgresThis week I’ve been teaching a nonfiction reading unit, and I’ve gotten pretty fired up about the power of literacy and of reading widely. We teach students strategies for reading critically and asking questions, and honestly that is one of the most powerful things a citizen can do. Of course if you’ve read much here over the past ten years, my true passion is narrative, fiction or nonfiction. the ability to get to know stories and perspectives that are not your own is, I think, the best way to heal the brokenness in our country. This week NPR had a great article called One Way to Bridge the Political Divide: Read the Book That’s Not For You. They quote Lisa Lucas, head of the National Book Foundation: “My life is small” she says, “and I think books are a way to make your life larger.” It’s an article worth checking out–and the idea of reading books about people who are different than you might just be one of the answers to creating more empathy in our country: our classrooms, our homes, our social media feeds.

I finished reading Everything Beautiful Began After about a month ago for my 2016 rereading goal. I loved it as much as I did the first time, even when the second half switches to second person narration (which takes some getting used to). There is a tragedy that happens to the main characters, and this writing style forces the reader to feel as if they are the one experiencing the longing, the deep sense of grief, the lack of center along with him. Van Booy  has a gift for description that cuts to the marrow of human experience, and as I reread the following passages I underlined while reading, they became metaphorical for any kind of rebuilding, but felt particularly relevant to my current political frustrations.

First this:

“A man on an upside-down bucket is selling small tubes of glue from a folding table. On the table are things glued together…He asks if anything you have is broken. “Everything,” you say in Greek. He puts a tube of glue in your hands. You hold out a few coins, but he pushes them away,” (293).

Then this:

“You are sitting on a bench in Sicily, in the town of Noto, where George lives. Once destroyed by an earthquake and then rebuilt. After every chapter of devastation, there is rebuilding. It happens without thought. It happens even when there is no guarantee it won’t happen again. Humans may come and go–but the thread of hope is a rope we pull ourselves up with,” (367).

And this:

“He keeps going. He can feel the weight of their lives in a single step forward. And he is enchanted by the beauty of the small things: hot coffee, wind through an open window, the tapping of rain, a passing bicycle, the desolation of snow on a winter’s day,” (401).

The last one reminds me of course of Mary Oliver (thoughts on her latest coming soon) and living mindfully. Being present with love and grace rather than scrolling through twitter on the lookout for the next thing to incite anger. Being present to see signs of hope. Being present to rebuild. The title of this book–everything beautiful began after–is a precious reminder that after suffering, hope and life can spring.

Longing and Loneliness: On Rereading Great House by Nicole Krauss.

imgresWhen I opened Nicole Krauss’s Great House to reread, three typed sheets of notes fell out. I realized that I planned a rather epic blog post about it when I finished it in 2010, but there was so much to say that I think I just touched on a single line from the book. What Krauss attempts to do in this book is pretty immense–there are four narratives that are connected only by the fact that at some point one of the characters in each owned an enormous desk that took on a metaphorical life of its own–to a point where it represented a deep kind of loneliness.

There are a few lines in particular that give a name to what these characters long for: a sense of safety and being known:

“Negotiating this obstacle course, stripped of any sense of purpose, all I longed for was to be home in my childhood bedroom, tucked under the covers with their familiar smell.”

“It’s something amazing to feel that for the first time someone is seeing you as you really are, not as they wish you, or you wish yourself to be.”

One of the narrators is an Israeli man whose business is to track down items stolen during the Nazi era. At the end, he shares one of his favorite Jewish stories about how if all the Jewish memories and experiences were put together as holy fragments, the Great House, or the destroyed temple, would be metaphorically restored to its original self. “We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.” It seems to me that the rest of the book is about disconnected people fiercely trying to preserve the tiny part of the world that makes sense to them, which sometimes means tip-toeing through life and bearing its weight alone. These moments of narration were utterly gut wrenching:

“I came across you standing in the garden, a strange stiffness in your posture as if you carried a wooden yoke like the old Dutch, only instead of water it was great reserves of feeling that you wished not to spill.”

“In her work the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.”

“He who never dared to break it, and I who bowed to the borders drawn, the walls erected, the areas restricted, who turned away and never asked.”

As I’m trying to make sense of all of this, I am remembering now why I didn’t try to address the entire book six years ago–the weight of it is so immense, that the act of reading it is perhaps all there is to do. I remember finishing it in my studio apartment the first time thinking that all I could really do was start reading again at the beginning. This is the kind of book that is worth rereading because it gives a poignant look into the mess that is the human condition.

That time I decided it would be a good idea to reread The Waves by Virginia Woolf. (And it was…it just took me about a month longer than it did in undergrad.)


Penny has high brow taste in literature and prefers to read while wearing her Buckeyes jersey.

When I was a junior in college, I took a course where we read 8 novels by Virginia Woolf in 8 weeks. I loved it. There’s never been another time in my reading life where I’ve been able to cover so much in such a short period of time, and she still remains the author I’ve read most extensively. Over the years, though, I’ve only reread Mrs. Dalloway  (along with The Hours by Michael Cunningham) with my old book club. For this year’s rereading of favorites, I picked Woolf’s The Waves, definitely her most difficult book and the one my pretentious undergrad- English-major-self claimed to love the most, and what I wrote my final paper on. I’m not going to lie–15 years later, The Waves felt like a lot of work to get through even while simultaneously understanding what a masterpiece it still is. (I tried reading it before bed and I fell asleep within 2 pages every time. It then lived in my purse for weeks as my subway book. Then I read it during my school’s 20 minute independent reading time after lunch each day. Then I finally sat down on my couch until I was done.)

The story is told from the voices of 5 friends and covers their early days into their latest years, with the central event being the death of their 6th friend in his early twenties. It is told in a stream of consciousness, moment-by-moment narration, giving me the sense that each character is simply trying to make it through from one to the next. There is a lot of inner thinking and philosophizing about the nature of life and being that begins to change as the characters grow older.

As a 21 year old, I read it through the lens of love: “There can be no doubt, I thought, pushing aside the newspaper, that our mean lives, unsightly as they are, put on splendour and have meaning only under the eyes of love” (178). I still try to see the world through a lens of love, but looking at my older notes, it’s amazing to learn how the layers and years of your life can change the way you interpret a book. Ultimately, I still believe that love creates meaning, but what stood out for me this time was the capacity one has for being in the moment (and let’s be honest, despite knowing better, mine’s quite small).

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

“The moment was all. The moment was enough.”

Meanwhile, I’m connecting to articles that tell me if I’m turning to my phone because I think I feel bored, that’s a problem.

The other thing I noticed significantly more this time around was as the characters grew older, many of them embrace life’s messiness. I imagine when I was 21 I would have seen these characters as being somewhat lost, whereas now I connect more to this view:



After Penny finished The Waves, she was exhausted, too.movement; something sulphurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost…” (238-239).

“But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story–and there are so many, and so many–stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases. How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground! […] What delights me [now] is the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and

movement; something sulphurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost…” (238-239).

The piece that enables me to embrace the mess is this:

“I am rooted, but I flow.”

No more words are needed.

(Note: I also just read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which is a memoir about her life as a botanist and in it she writes about the root systems of trees, which I find profoundly metaphorical. Highly recommended if you are even a little bit of a life science nature nerd.)


Summer Reading Conclusions.


The newest member of the Warren family, Penny.

Sometimes there are summers when you buy a kindle so your reading can easily be packed for your escapes, and sometimes there are summers when reading itself is the escape–that is the story of this one. Embracing NYC summer isn’t my strong suit, unless it’s after sundown, and with my limited travel this year, I think I nerdily broke some personal records for number of books consumed.

I spent most mornings in July on my fire escape drawing and painting and making my way through Natalie Goldberg’s (author of one of the best books on the writing process, Writing Down the Bones) The Great Spring. In this one she writes about the connections between writing and meditation, and how intertwined her practices of each have become over time. The other nonfiction was a bit darker in nature, including Sleeping with the Enemy, (about Coco Chanel’s Nazi ties during World War Two), Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (fascinating and informative story about the rare autoimmune disease she survived), and Dog Medicine (about how author Julie Barton made it through severe depression with the help of her golden retriever).


Walking through Kentucky wildflowers with my parents in Louisville.

I read a lot of fiction about modern families (A Blue Spool of Thread, Among the Ten Thousand Things, The Nest, Did You Ever Have a Family) and the one I would most highly recommend is Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. It is about how a family deals with the depression and severe anxiety of the father and one of the sons. Haslett’s fictional account has roots in his own familial experience and as he tells the story through the voices of the wife and children, a reader gets a thorough picture of how people cope (or not) through incredibly poignant writing with a dose of dark humor.

The truth that stood out to me the most in the majority of the fictional characters I read this summer (who are representative of the majority of people I pass on the street? I don’t know.) is that people are unhappy. But. The thread of hope I found in some of the fiction stories and much of the nonfiction is trying to be truly present in the moment can assuage that reality a bit. Not worrying about what has passed or what may be ahead, not mindlessly scrolling at other people’s 140 characters or pictures, but looking for the beauty in the moment. This is a recurring theme for me–a roller coaster of a theory that I haven’t mastered, but the more I read, the more I want to try.


A few days with my extended family out east.

My most recommended book, though, is actually a young adult novel: All American Boys. It tells the story in two voices: of a black teenager wrongfully arrested and beaten by a white police officer, and a white teenager who witnessed the event. Both narrators wrestle honestly with questions our nation faces–and with nuance, an art rarely seen in most mainstream media. I tell students books can be mirrors–that help us see ourselves, and books can be windows–that help us see others. Way more than any of the adult-level fiction I read this summer, this book was hands down the most thought provoking and important.

All this to say, I am excited to get back to work in a few days. I can’t wait to talk about All American Boys with my students, and I’m pretty excited to think about reading as more than just an escape, though it was the perfect medicine for this particular summer.