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The Elegance of the Hedgehog Muriel Barbery, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,

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By BOOK REVIEWS

The Elegance of the Hedgehog Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson. (Europa Editions, $15.00)

What can Renee, the widowed and unschooled concierge of a fashionable Parisian apartment building have in common with Paloma, the precocious 12-year-old younger daughter of a wealthy “caviar left” family, who finds life so lacking in meaning that she plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday?
 
The self-described “short, ugly and plump” fiftyish Renee is a self-taught lover of Tolstoy, philosophy, classical music, and Japanese film, who hides her intelligence and sophistication from her tenants to avoid their curiosity and because she feels life will be easier if she appears to conform to their stereotypes. Paloma has her own bitingly cynical observations about the haute bourgeoisie, including her own family, and in particular her older sister, a shallow and materialistic university student.  Her class-consciousness is more than equal to Renee’s. She, too, is profoundly affected by beauty, and, surprising in one so young, perceives that a great part of beauty lies in its ephemeral quality.
 
Although their paths often cross, the two do not really connect until the building’s penthouse is purchased by Mr. Ozo, an affluent Japanese businessman, who sees through Renee’s prickly exterior to the soul it disguises.  She is initially intrigued by him because he has the same surname as her favorite Japanese director. Mr. Ozo, with much effort, lures Renee out of her shell. Renee in turn attempts to show Paloma that all people are not shallow and avaricious, and that she can find value in living.
 
The chapters, alternating between the two protagonists, are in journal form. Renee reflects on her one friendship, with a Portuguese cleaning woman, Manuela, who is the only person aware of Renee’s interior life, and on her observations of the building’s residents. She describes the great lengths to which she will go to maintain her privacy, such as turning on an inane television show when she hears a knock on her door. The irony of Renee’s life is that she knows everything about the residents of the building, but they know absolutely nothing about her.
 
Paloma’s diaries dwell on her family in the manner of any bright twelve-year-old girl, and on cynical social commentary which displays some typical teen angst, but she also muses on the meaning of movement and other philosophical questions.
 Barbery, born in Algeria but raised in France, is a professor of philosophy, and her many references to various philosophers may be esoteric and obscure for many readers. However, she manages to write a popular novel that both engages and flatters the intelligence of the reader. The Elegance of the Hedgehog was a monumental best seller in Europe, and there is a lyrical quality to this novel well served by Alison Anderson’s sensitive translation.
—Cynthia Taubert

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (Crown, $26.00)

With In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson, best selling author of The Devil in the White City, again uses his journalistic talents in paralleling historical event with ordinary life. In his latest nonfiction work, Larson coincides pre-war Germany and Hitler’s rise to power with the country’s arrival of William E. Dodd, newly-appointed U.S. ambassador to Germany by President Franklin Roosevelt. The story’s two protagonists, Dodd and his young and beautiful but promiscuous daughter, Martha, a woman more inclined to dining and dancing and married lovers than to the realities of the dark historical events evolving around her, meet head on with Hitler’s sinister regime.
 
Though smitten with the beauty and excitement of Berlin, the Dodds gradually begin to realize that, amid the constant round of gala parties and banquets and superficial charms of the Nazi officers, looms an all-pervasive danger. All too soon they begin to feel an uneasiness, fearfulness even, with the paranoia and frightening back and forth of mind-games and denunciations taking grip of the population, German and Jewish alike.
 
An agreeable but ineffective politician, Dodd’s attitude in regard to the Nazi mistreatment of Jews is often incongruous; on the one hand he is quick to warn of Hitler’s ever-growing sway over the German population, his tactics of falsely filling the German population with exaggerated accounts of treasonable acts by the Jews against Germany, but, then, and just as quickly, he insists that Nazi mistreatment of Jews is on the wane. As the persecution escalates, however, and as so many fail to see it or simply choose not to see it, choosing instead to mollify Hitler’s crafty genius, the story moves inexorably to its violent and fatalistic end. And Larson, as he propels us slowly but most provocatively—“Outside, cigarettes twinkled in the park, and now and then a large, open car whooshed past on Tiergartenstrasse” and “In the park, insects speckled the halos cast by lamps, and the brilliant white statues in the Siegesallee gleamed like ghosts”—to a final and terrifying night of fear, evil, and capricious arrests and assassinations, proves himself once again a master in writing narrative nonfiction.
—Barbara Weddle

Read My Pins:  Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box by Madeleine Albright (Harper: Melcher Media, $40.00)

It started with a serpent. A serpent pin, added to the jacket of United States UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright in 1994, to respond to Saddam Hussein’s noncompliance with weapons disclosure and inspections. When asked why, Albright said it was just her way of sending a message. In 1996, she showed her anger and sorrow over the killing of four Cuban-American fliers with a head-down blue bird brooch. Albright had begun wearing the pins that would become Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box. As the years passed and her title changed to U.S. Secretary of State, she built the collection of pins that became an extension of her diplomatic statements.
   
Albright writes candidly about her first pins from family and friends as she remembers her marriage and motherhood. Then, when she entered the larger arena, she acquired her own jewelry and received gifts from admirers world-wide. One came with the simple words, “My mother loved you,” as the son of a Hurricane Katrina victim gave her a precious memento that had been his mother’s. Exquisite photos detail every fascinating piece and a “Pindex” provides a thumbnail guide to the objects mentioned throughout the book. The collection will also be on exhibit at selected venues in the United States and around the world.
 
Read My Pins ties the feminine with strength and power: the history of jewelry and brinkmanship goes back to Cleopatra. Ultimately, it shows how something personal—a heart pin made by a five-year old daughter—is also universal, reflecting “one of the indispensable purposes of jewelry:  to bind families together and connect one generation to the next.”
—Christine S. Ricker

Two Among the Righteous Few: A Story of Courage in the Holocaust by Marty Brounstein (Tate Publishing; $12.95).

This is a special book that tells a remarkable story of courage and hope. In lively prose, the author tells the tale of how Frans and Mien Wijnakker saved the lives of at least two dozen Jews in southern Holland during World War II. They were Catholics who led a simple life in a small town with their children, but they took risks and displayed bravery to help others in dire need.
 
Two Among the Righteous Few reminds me very much of the Diary of Anne Frank. One can hardly imagine these events are happening. In addition, the book provides lots of interesting facts and uncovers rich historical background. One of the heroic acts performed by Frans and Mien was taking on a baby born to a young Jewish couple so that she could be saved. It turns out that she is the wife of the author of this book and instrumental in helping him to reconstruct the story.
 
Nestled in the hills on the western side of Jerusalem is a museum called Yad Vashem. A section of the museum is dedicated to those who carried out acts of courage to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. Remembered there are Frans and Mien Wijnakker—or as the author refers to them: mensches—good quality people.
—Kathleen Welton

The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Harper Perennial, $14.99)

In The London Train, Tessa Hadley’s fifth novel, the writer takes us into the lives of Paul and Cora, two seemingly unrelated characters. The novel takes place in contemporary UK, in London and Cardiff. It has a divided structure, the first half entitled “Only Children,” is about Cora and (as we learn further) about their encounter and subsequent affair.
 
Hadley deals with issues of social significance and realism, such as the loss of a parent, middle age, extramarital affairs, and disappointments. There is a lot of narrative exposition of thoughts as well as actions. Very early on, we learn about Paul’s mother’s death, marital discord (in his second marriage with Elise), and about his daughter Pia, from his first marriage. Paul is a writer and critic living in Wales with his second wife and two small children. The story moves from the recent loss of his mother, to the news that Pia is missing. Paul searches for her, finally making contact with her in London. She is pregnant and living under shady circumstances with a Polish man named Marek and his sister. In a rundown flat, Paul weirdly lives with them for some time, but when he cannot  convince Pia to go home, he heads back to Wales, where he gets a cold reception from his wife. Later, he gets a surprise visit from Pia, who leaves the Polish boyfriend, and reveals the baby’s father is none other than a boy next door, James, who is as surprised as everyone else. Paul goes back home to his house after leaving Pia with James  and his family, and tries to work things out with Elise, who seems more receptive now, though changed. “... massaging her shoulder, though, Paul felt her disappointment and humiliation…He felt as if he hardly knew her, this wife and mother of his children.” Cora is not mentioned at all in this first part of the book, showing us sides of Paul outside of his relationship with her, which we will see later.
 
The second part of the book introduces Cora, also unhappy in her marriage to a civil servant; she is childless. She meets Paul in a chance encounter on a train and there is an attraction. They have an affair, and he meets her regularly and in secret, in her deceased parents’ home in Cardiff. Cora becomes deeply invested emotionally with Paul. “She felt herself laid open in the bleaching light of his attention.” The affair does end, however, but not until she learns of a pregnancy, something she has been thus far unable to achieve in her marriage.
 
This liaison, which arises, from the “collision” of their two separate lives on the London train, is echoed by the two part structure of the novel. Paul and Cora’s distinct perspectives give color and variation to their illicit union. Hadley fleshes out her characters with ease, adding details and information until the final picture comes through. The London Train  is a light and satisfying read, though one wishes it was more heavily nuanced with details and descriptions that would give it more weight.
—Vimi Molhotra
 

Published: October 01, 2011
Issue: November 2011 Issue