A French bestseller for American ears
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by philosophy professor Muriel Barbery sold over a million copies in France and became an international blockbuster. In an excellent English translation, it’s been one of the most talked-about novels in years, and now we have a nuanced audio presentation that perfectly captures the unique eloquence, mordent wit and charm of its protagonists. Barbara Rosenblat, one of the very best audio actors going, is Mme. Renée Michel, the 54-year-old concierge of a ritzy Paris apartment building, self-described as short and ugly, discreet and insignificant. But behind her carefully engineered veneer of sour, dowdy, working-class widow is an amazing autodidact who loves Tolstoy, reads philosophy with a keen eye, listens to Mahler, watches Japanese films and reflects on the “lavish but vacuous lives” of her employers. Paloma, read by Cassandra Morris, is the brilliant, prodigiously precocious 12-year-old daughter of a wealthy family in the building who writes a diary of “profound thoughts” that alternates with Renée’s musings. Both keep their true hearts and minds hidden until a cultured Japanese gentleman moves in, lifts their masks and allows them to bloom. A Platonic romance à trois emerges, wonderfully French, wonderfully engaging.
Running with ultra-athletes
Whether you run, jog or walk, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, read, dare I say it, at race-pace by Fred Sanders, is fascinating. And though author Christopher McDougall has provided a detailed subtitle, there’s a lot more to his book. The race “never seen” is run by the reclusive, serenely peaceful, incredibly healthy Tarahumara Indians who live in Mexico’s remote, mountainous Copper Canyon (and are probably the greatest distance runners in the world) and a few superb American ultra-marathoners. It’s a doozy of a contest that will leave you excitedly exhausted. How McDougall gets involved, the mysterious ex-pat loner who stages this run on the wild side and the people who actually run it fill most of this adrenaline-packed adventure. But I found the asides—the findings of evolutionary anthropologists who think running, not walking, is key to the development of homo sapiens; the coaches who search for the elusive element that seems to light up great distance runners and the head-spinning, counterintuitive advice offered on running shoes—just as intriguing. Armchair athletes will take the run of their lives and ordinary road warriors (I’ve been one for years) will hit those hills with new heart.
There seems to be another memoir published every day, but in that mountain of manuscripts is a small, special sub-, maybe sub-sub-, genre by fine writers who are compelled, I think, to write of intensely personal love or loss, or both, because that’s how they navigate the world. Losing Mum and Pup, Christopher Buckley’s book—which he reads with unaffected openness—about his illustrious, legendary parents who died within 11 months of each other is such a memoir: poignant, loving, honest to a fault, entertaining, well written and, because Buckley is a natural, gifted humorist, funny. His father was an iconic conservative leader, prolific writer, famed debater, founder of the National Review, beloved friend of the famous and a true gentleman. His mother, “the chic and stunning” Patricia Taylor Buckley, was a superb hostess, a super-elegant New York socialite, the possessor of both wicked wit and the chutzpah to use it. Extraordinarily devoted to each other in their decidedly idiosyncratic manner, they were fabulous and fabulously difficult. The portrait of Mum and Pup that emerges is brilliant, cringe moments and all, and I can only thank “Christo,” their own child, for sharing them with us.